While we can imagine the group of apples in the present work as belonging to the iridescent white shelf of a bakery counter, Thiebaud has isolated the objects from their surrounding context, relying only on bold shadows to ground the apples onto their supporting surface. Thiebaud’s signature style is to isolate groups of objects, simplify them into their basic formal units, and align them in a strictly ordered progression comparable to traditional architectonic ordering principles. Through this process, Thiebaud exercises a considerable degree of non-objective experimentation with form, color and composition. For example, in Nine Candy Apples, Thiebaud’s structural arrangement of color and form follows the same theory of structural organization and interest and positive-negative space seen in Malevich or Mondrian’s abstract blocks of color. Similar to these early Modernists, we witness in the present work Thiebaud’s underlying interest in balancing horizontal and vertical weight, as achieved through a satisfying rhythm of apples, shadows, and popsicle sticks. Consistent with Thiebaud’s best works, the layout of the composition in Nine Candy Apples is informed by his former professional experience as a commercial illustrator and his consequential preoccupation with ritualization and order. He explains, “I’m interested in foods generally which have been fooled with ritualistically, displays contrived and arranged in certain ways to tempt or seduce us” (the artist in Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Wayne Thiebaud, 1985, p. 27). Further elaborating on his compositional strategy, he says, “Working from memory, I tried to arrange [the objects] in the same way that an art director arranges things…I tried to be more refined and interesting in terms of relationships” (ibid., p. 35).
Further negating his supposed purity as a Realist, Thiebaud demonstrates an exceptional and incessant manipulation of color. Employing a technique now referred to as ‘halation’ within color theory, Thiebaud juxtaposes warm and cool tones to produce a resounding prismatic synergy that contours and electrifies each form off the surface of the canvas. In the present work, Thiebaud contours the apples with unexpected exaggerations of lavender, fuchsia, lime green, and neon orange that yield sensational chromatic depth to the forms. Nowhere is color treated with such a degree of extreme and arbitrary play as in the glowing cobalt shadows and the range of hues that decorate the typically manilla popsicle sticks. The paint itself is thick and syrupy yet still suggestive of gossamer gloss, paralleling the very nature of the material being depicted.
A magnificent companion to Thiebaud’s best known early works based on cakes, pies, ice cream, gumball machines, and parfaits, Nine Candy Apples endures as a powerful tribute to the cultural consciousness of the sixties in America. Though readily remembered as a Pop Artist, Thiebaud differs from Oldenburg and Warhol in that his aim is not to critique society but rather to celebrate and remember it. Thiebaud’s work therefore functions as an honest and commemorative societal mirror based not only on personal, but more importantly, collective memory. As eloquently summarized by Steven Nash: “Andy Warhol remarked famously that his art was mostly ‘about liking things.’ With the things in Thiebaud’s work—the household goods, people, roadways, or mountain cliffs—we feel the empathy of the artist, but other attributes as well. Thiebaud’s are deeply reasoned paintings that still allow instinct and emotion to thrive. His object are nuggets of nostalgia, encoding fond memories from his youth but also aspects of American life meaningful to a great many of us” (Steve A. Nash, “Unbalancing Acts,” in Exh. Cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, 2000, p. 35).
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