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Wayne Thiebaud, "Cloud Ridge," 1967

By Alfred Mac Adam 

In his far-ranging March 2019 Brooklyn Rail interview with Hearne Pardee, Wayne Thiebaud (b.1920) links mountains, the subject of the works in Acquavella’s 54 year survey of his career, to a sense of disquiet. He talks about mountains as having an “abstract potential for expressing some of that feeling of empathy, even to the point of putting us off a bit, or feeling dislocated.” This distress derives from Romanticism’s fascination with cliffs, crags, echoes, and, more generally, experiences of the sublime. In 1757, Edmund Burke described the difference between the sublime and the beautiful as a distinction between that which inspires pain and fear and that which is merely aesthetically pleasing. We might expect Thiebaud's 27 mountain paintings, then, to fill the viewer with awe. But they don't, because Thiebaud has, in fact, eschewed the sublime here. His mountains embody the most sensuous aspects of the beautiful, as Thiebaud is a fundamentally erotic artist whose work arouses the viewer’s appetites. No less than his well known paintings of pies on display, his dessert trays, or his ice cream cones, Thiebaud’s mountains are objects of physical desire, mirages that taunt us with their inaccessibility.

One of the more recent works here, Around Yountville (2008–11/2018), is a case in point. First the dates: Thiebaud is only finished with an image when some inner voice tells him to stop reworking it, and, in this case, the voice was silent for ten years. The real Yountville lies in the heart of Napa Valley, but the mountain depicted by this painting resides only in Thiebaud's imagination. The luminescent blue bluff recalls the title of an old song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” about a paradise for hoboes, a refuge for the hungry and dispossessed. Floating above the slopes, a cotton-candy cloud, below, cultivated farmland transformed into hash marks reminiscent of Jasper Johns's The Dutch Wives print series (1971). But where Johns makes the obsessive hash marks his subject, Thiebaud subtly incorporates them into the landscape as a geometry that is both improbable and seductive. The sun shines here: the small row of trees toward the bottom of the canvas cast shadows, and the scene is suffused with light. But the sun’s actual location is anyone's guess, because this painting is not about reality but about creating an imaginary land of plenty. Big Rock Mountain (2004–12/2019) pushes this sense of unreality yet further. It might as well depict an eight-layer cake, covered with chocolate frosting and cut in half to reveal the layers inside. The mountain in this magnificent 54 by 54 inch oil on canvas is a sensuous provocation; its affective intention is to arouse. This is not nature per se but the transformation of nature into a seductive force—eye candy in its most brazen form.

Cloud Ridge (1967), smaller in scale at 12 by 9 inches, hovers on the edge of abstraction, its configuration as a ridge barely detectable. Its hulking form is only linked to the landscape tradition by some miniscule trees and buildings, which seem in imminent danger of sliding into the void. Thiebaud's cotton clouds once again hover like diaphanous space ships, casting shadows on the face of the ridge. The obligingly absent sun discreetly creates a totally fictitious light source, leaving the viewer with a breathtaking glimpse into the ephemeral. This is a captured moment, not of reality, but of Thiebaud's visionary experience, a recreation of the tangible world that exceeds the everyday. There is no sublime gloom here, only mountain glory, a splendid chapter in the long career of an artist who, while he may beguile himself into thinking he is delving into the sinister awe that paralyzed the Romantic sensibility, is in point of fact serving up Lucullan dreams of desire and delight.