His interest in commercial arts soon faded and he began to explore principles and theories of fine art. This exploration of art history and studio art led Thiebaud to study painting at San Jose State College and ultimately at California State College, both located in Northern California. Thus began Thiebaud’s lifelong journey as a student. Upon graduating from California State College, he began teaching studio courses at a local junior college while completing his master’s degree. While working independently outside of the classroom, Thiebaud exhibited his work in galleries in Sacramento and Los Angeles throughout the early to mid-fifties; still, he felt disconnected from the art world and his contemporaries in New York. Abstract Expressionism had influenced Thiebaud through articles and reproductions, so around 1956-57 he moved to New York City to learn more about the artistic practices of his avant-garde contemporaries. Although Thiebaud never abandoned figurative subjects and a photo-realist style in his work, his process of application and methodology was significantly impacted from his contact with Abstract Expressionist painters. Using thick impasto, gestural brushstrokes, and metallic paints, he created texture in a painterly form of realism, bringing traces of natural and artificial light to storefront scenes, café counters, even a tray of club sandwiches.
Thiebaud’s work began to echo the discourse of the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Showcasing the post-war abundance of American life, Thiebaud drew on his talents from his advertising career. Isolating one scrumptious subject at a time, his paintings of pies, cakes, lollipops, and ice cream cones enticed viewers and boasted the sweet life. Keepings his backgrounds simple and focusing on the texture of his subjects, Thiebaud’s paint layers whipped off the canvas, creating a visual bounty for viewers. This attention to detail and technique set his work apart from other Pop artists who strove to remove all signs of their hand in the creation process. Silkscreens and stencils dominated their canvases, yet Thiebaud continued to master the manipulation of paint.
After exploring hundreds of still life subjects on canvas, Thiebaud reset his focus from the sumptuous treats and delights of daily American life to the exploration of where and how they lived their lives. Returning to San Francisco, Thiebaud began painting vast scenes depicting ridges and streets with homes, cars, and trees. He painted winding rivers, farms, lakes and thoroughfares while still employing the eye-catching color found in his confectionary still-lifes.
In Down Penn Street, the present work from 1978, Thiebaud organizes a complex composition using geometry, color, light and shadow. With his observation set from the bottom of a steep hill, the viewer gazes up to a horizon line that barely makes its way onto the canvas. An exercise in form, line, and topography, the broad expanses of grey and black, green and blue, create the urban landscape. Down Penn Street is almost map-like in its composition – a park is suggested by the green triangle bleeding off the left edge of the canvas and the double yellow lines that blur into one as the street stretches into the sky. The buildings to the right of the street have been pared down by perspective and have become mere slivers of color that indicate progression as the eye follows the roofline towards the lush trees atop the hill. Color and shadow indicate unique architectural details of the buildings on the right side of the street. As the deep shadows stretch across the road, the viewer’s attention is led to the upper left corner of the canvas – a more clearly depicted block of houses with each home portraying its own character as it basks in the morning sun. The bright neighborhood wedged in the upper left corner balances with the shaded intersection that runs along the lower right corner of the canvas. As the viewer’s eye continues from this darkly shaded corner up the rolling hills towards the clear blue sky, there is a peacefulness that follows.
Down Penn Street is closely linked stylistically and in subject to the works of Edward Hopper from a decade earlier. Though Hopper worked predominately in New England, and Thiebaud on the west coast, their treatment of light and shadow bear strong resemblance to one another. Thiebaud took Hopper’s work a step further in adding lush, painterly technique and texture to his paintings and subverting conventional perspective in favor of a more geometric framework. Still, this Hopper-esque scene is familiar to anyone who has experienced the quiet sunrise in a busy city when the buildings, parks, and streets practically humanize and become characters themselves. One can sense the budding potential of a day as the city wakes up, stores open and cars begin to crowd the streets. Thiebaud’s interpretation of Penn Street is much more than a cityscape as his signature palette and flatness promise endless possibilities for the day ahead.
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