In tracing Thiebaud’s own history the motivations behind his dichotomic aesthetic become clear. As a young man he took a job preparing food in Long Beach where he became absorbed by the appearance of the vibrant yet commonplace objects and products that surrounded him – images that would stay with him and form the basis of the groundbreaking works he produced in the early 1960s, such as the present lot, that are suffused with idealized nostalgia and guileless allure.
During his formative years Thiebaud also worked as an apprentice at Walt Disney Studios and went on to work professionally as a cartoonist and designer. Within these commercially controlled environments, Thiebaud grew attached to the conformity, repetition and compositional obscurity of popular images and advertisements, and likewise to the simultaneity, abundance and ubiquity of mass-produced goods that resonate with typically American ideals. The present work portrays an immaculate row of sweets in which the individual components establish an absorbing relationship between the uniformity and subtle difference that arise between them. Three Jelly Rolls therefore constitutes a thoroughly well resolved reflection of what was at one point a revolutionary progression of abundance and democracy in American production. As John Coplans aptly notes, “By using with gentle irony and humor a banal imagery that reflects the mechanistic details of the modern environment, Thiebaud affirms rather than denies the infinite riches to be gained from the ordinary experience (‘Introduction,’ in: Exh. Cat., Pasadena Art Museum (and travelling), Wayne Thiebaud, February – October 1968, p. 16).
That Three Jelly Rolls works on both abstract and objective levels is however Thiebaud’s real masterstroke. The undulating painterly surface of his works skillfully navigates between reality and illusion so that his images have as much to do with the practices of Robert Ryman or Jasper Johns as they do with Andy Warhol’s or even Edward Hopper’s. The buttery surface of paint in the present work recalls the actual sugary surface of the depicted sweets making them appear so unquestionably real that their integrity can never be substantively questioned. Yet there are exquisite little glimmers of emerald greens and ruby reds that shine through the creamy substance of the rolls and offer a definitive cantilever to the work, endowing it with an almost dreamlike charm and elegance. Likewise, the expansive white ground isolates the central forms and obliterates any context they might otherwise have, allowing them to float like abstract voids in a sea of rippling sensation.
Skillfully composed and realized without a hint of restraint, these artistically powerful works are nevertheless implicitly democratic. By depicting ordinary foodstuffs they celebrate the commonplace, the little joys in life that we have all enjoyed at one point or another. They are honest, bold and egalitarian. With a pronounced aesthetic vocabulary Thiebaud creates arresting paintings that can readily be consumed by the masses, he is the people’s painter, the artist’s artist, and the “poet laureate of the coffee break” (Max Kolzoff quoted in: ibid., p.8).
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