By Lane Florsheim
Wayne Thiebaud’s most famous works have always appealed to the sweet tooths among us. For much of the 98 year-old artist’s decades-long career, Thiebaud’s calling card has been his oil paintings of confectionary delights: rows of cakes and cupcakes, milkshakes and sundaes, doughnuts and lollipops—as well as the way he layers colors to create them. A slice of white cake with white frosting, for example, might be bordered in orange, red or blue on a white plate with a similarly technicolored rim.
Acquavella Galleries, which shows Thiebaud’s work in New York City, has previously done surveys of it that include his desserts and other still lifes, as well as his portrait and landscape work. But for a new show that opened this month, they wanted a singular focus. The resulting Mountains 1965-2019 features 33 of Thiebaud’s works. “There’s a very powerful, almost spiritual attention to mountains,” says Thiebaud, who lives in Sacramento, CA, where he paints or draws almost every day. “They’re challenging. People want to climb them and revere them. We carve our national heroes into them.”
When he’s drawn to a subject matter, Thiebaud will often paint a series. He likens his process to problem solving. “The problem,” he says, “is to try and get them looking as interesting as possible.” He’s interested in the ways mountains change over time, as well as human interference. “We love them so much in terms of tourism, we make roads over them, and those are visuals things which fascinate me,” he says. The link between mountains and desserts, and everything else that Thiebaud paints, is simply that they intrigue him. “Colors and cakes and things like that probably show up in the mountains as well,” he says. (Some of the cliffs in the show could indeed almost be mistaken for giant, abstract sheet cakes.)
Standing in front of one of his mountain paintings, the viewer notices not just his signature color layering—a mountain crest is rendered in navy, rose pink and dark yellow with bits of red and teal peeking out (Sandy Cliff)—but also the places where the paint is so thick, rich blobs of it protruding from the canvas. Thiebaud builds the paint up like this to imitate what happens to rocks and trees over time. All of Thiebaud’s mountains are painted from memory, he says, conjured up from his upbringing in southern Utah and different parts of California.
In person, Thiebaud has a warm voice and charming demeanor. When asked to take his gum out during a photo shoot in his Upper East Side hotel room, he does and then places it on his nose. Appropriately, he’s currently five years into working on a series of paintings of American clowns. “Clowns are a long tradition in our cultures, going way back to the Renaissance or before,” he says. “We don’t think of them very much as serious subjects, but I find them very, very compelling.”
Near the end of the interview, Thiebaud reflects on his desire to not limit himself as he gets closer to his 100th birthday. (He turns 99 on November 15.) “I would like to feel that I can paint anything, any day, anytime I want to. Painting is one of the most difficult things to do we’ve ever tried,” he adds. “We often think of it as sort of a hobby, but I think it’s a very compelling part of what makes us and reminds us of our humanity. We’re trying to find out something about how a flat piece of canvas or paper can come alive and represent human emotions.”