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Christy Kuesel, "Why the Art Market Has a Sweet Tooth for Wayne Thiebaud," November 12, 2019

By Christy Kuesel 

The name Wayne Thiebaud is synonymous with mouth-watering depictions of colorful pastries of all shapes and sizes. Using paint as thick as icing, Thiebaud has reimagined the sweets, streets, and mountain peaks of American life for over 50 years. And now, as the artist prepares to celebrate his 99th birthday, he may notch a new auction record to mark the occasion.

His work Encased Cakes (2010–11) will be featured in this Thursday’s evening sale of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. The painting—a large canvas depicting five sumptuous cakes inside a display case and a sixth on top—is estimated to bring between $6 million and $8 million, which puts it within striking distance of a new highwater mark for his market. Thiebaud’s current record is $6.3 million, for Two Jackpots (2005), set at a Christie’s auction in 2013.

Encased Cakes is also Thiebaud’s first cake-counter painting to appear at auction since the late collector and travel mogul Barney Ebsworth bought Bakery Counter (1962) for $1.7 million in 1997, beating Thiebaud’s record at the time. David Galperin, head of evening sales at Sotheby’s New York, thinks the cake counters show the artist at his very best.

“There’s this sense of wanting or desire that embodies the very concept of Pop Art he said. “That connection between image and desire is really central to Thiebaud and really central to the beginning of Pop art in America.”

Thiebaud himself rejected the label of Pop artist, though many do associate him with the movement; he was included in the 1962 show “New Painting of Common Objects” at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), which was instrumental in formalizing Pop art as a movement.

Two Jackpots and Encased Cakes are both novelties within Thiebaud’s oeuvre due to their size. Galperin believes Encased Cakes may be Thiebaud’s largest confection work to appear at auction, coming in at 6 by 4 feet. Two Jackpots, on the other hand, is 4 by 5 feet.

“There is a rarity of large-scale, high-quality works on the marketplace, so when one comes up for sale, collectors jump at the opportunity,” said Rachael White, head of morning sale for post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s.

Thiebaud is also starring as the cover lot for Sotheby’s day sale on Friday, where his work Ripley Street Ridge (1976) is estimated to bring between $1.5 million and $2 million. The work depicts a vertiginous San Francisco street lined with red, blue, and yellow houses seemingly standing on the edge of a cliff.

Eleanor Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries thinks Thiebaud’s cake drawings and still lifes are extremely compelling due to his innovative use of paint and color. The artist’s subject matter is familiar to anyone who has stepped into a bakery or a casino—he has frequently depicted slot machines—but his use of perspective and impasto breathes new life into common objects.

“He crafts beautiful, lush surfaces with vivid color harmonies, and when you look closely, you appreciate his extraordinary use of color,” Acquavella said.

The nonagenarian artist’s breadth of subject matter and mastery of paint and color make him beloved by museums and collectors alike. Thiebaud’s work is in the permanent collections of major institutions across the U.S., including the Whitney Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Menil Collection. And although the market for Thiebaud’s work has always been strong, White said she has seen an uptick in recent years, with collectors seeking a wide range of his signature subjects. She also noted a burgeoning interest in Thiebaud among Asian collectors, despite the artist’s tendency to draw upon quintessentially American iconography.

“His acute ability to capture the notion of nostalgia and sentimentality through depictions of everyday objects transcends cultures,” White said.

Thiebaud’s confection paintings are typically the most highly valued by the market—White finds this trend particularly true for his works from the 1960s. But Acquavella has also seen his landscapes and portraits becoming more sought-after. Notably, Thiebaud’s second-highest result at auction is a full-length double portrait, Eating Figures (Quick Snack), a 1963 oil painting sold at Christie’s earlier this year.

“Because he is such a skilled and impressive painter and draughtsman, collectors appreciate all of his different subjects,” Acquavella said, noting strong demand for his works on paper. Thiebaud’s drawing skills are revered, as evidenced by last year’s Morgan Library & Museum exhibition of his sketches, pastels, watercolors, and charcoal drawings. His record at auction for a work on paper is $1.6 million, set at Christie’s in 2011 by Sixteen pies (1965). In the coming days, Christie’s will offer the ink-and-graphite-on-paper work Layer Cakes Row (1964) with a pre-sale estimate of $150,000 to $200,000, while Thiebaud’s ink-on-paper work Candied Apples (1964) will be sold at Sotheby’s with a pre-sale estimate of $120,000 to $180,000.

In a video for the Morgan Library exhibition, Thiebaud described his initial attraction toward these simple subjects. He recalled Willem de Kooning encouraging Thiebaud to pursue his own style, instead of trying to copy the Abstract Expressionism that was popular in his youth. Drawing on his experience working in restaurants, he thought of the food he had seen lined up in rows, ready to be served.

“Often they were very typical American objects. Lemon meringue pies, pumpkin pies, and so on,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Well, nobody’s painted those, so I’m going to see what that looks like as an abstract shape.’

“And in a funny way, I had somehow connected to something that felt interesting and comfortable to me,” Thiebaud continued. “And I found I couldn’t leave it alone. It was just too interesting to me.”

Thiebaud has painted those same subjects again and again for over half a century: You can find cake paintings from the 1960s and from the last decade. And although the artist returns to the same motifs frequently, Galperin sees a strong shift in how he has perceived light, color, and space over the decades. In Encased Cakes, for example, the painting is cropped off-center, giving viewers only a partial view of the glass display and leaving them wondering what sorts of delicacies might be hiding just off-canvas.

“There’s almost a play of light and shadow that invokes an Edward Hopper–like landscape within it, and you can see him making these themes ever more complex even though the imagery is the same,” Galperin said.

One of Thiebaud’s lesser-known series is his mountain works, though he has been painting and drawing the California mountains since at least the 1960s. To shed some light on this overlooked area of his practice, Acquavella Galleries is showing Thiebaud’s mountain works from 1965 to 2019 this fall. The exhibition includes pieces on canvas, board, and paper, rendered in media ranging from acrylic and oil to charcoal and graphite.

“The mountains represent a very large and important body of work, but since they haven’t been as widely exhibited as other series, we felt it was time to present a show dedicated to them,” Acquavella said.

Thiebaud’s distinctive aesthetic was shaped in part by some of his earliest experiences making art. Born in Arizona in 1920, he spent his childhood in Southern California and started working as a commercial artist when he was still a teenager. He worked for a summer in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. He also created posters for movie theaters and drew cartoons while serving in the Air Force during World War II. Since 1972, he has lived in San Francisco.

The time Thiebaud spent honing his drawing skills by creating frames and frames of cartoon imagery to convey movement no doubt inspired Mickey Mouse (1988), a depiction of Disney’s iconic rodent with a dramatic, blue-gray shadow stretching out behind him. Mickey Mouse is among the Thiebaud works that will be offered as part of the Ron and Diane Disney Miller Collection at Christie’s this week, and has a pre-sale estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. (Diane Disney Miller, who died in 2013, was Walt Disney’s daughter.)

“It exhibits all the techniques Thiebaud acquired during his years working in commercial art—a central figure on a clean background, a prominent and dramatic shadow and an exaggerated, rich use of color,” White said. “Even after he left the world of animation and cartoons behind, he never lost his sense of appreciation for the practice.”