- Wayne Thiebaud
- signed and dated 1961
- oil on canvas
- 22 x 28 inches 55.9 x 71.1 cm
Acquired directly from the artist
San Francisco, Art Unlimited, An Exhibition of Recent Works by Thiebaud, November - December 1961 (illustrated on the exhibition announcement in a studio photograph)
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Wayne Thiebaud: Recent Paintings, April - May 1962
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Wayne Thiebaud at Allan Stone Gallery: Celebrating 33 Years Together, May - June 1994, n.p., illustrated in color
It is rare for a painting to strike so deeply the chord of collective and personal memory that is evoked in Wayne Thiebaud's Pies, 1961. It is one of the earliest paintings in the signature style that catapulted Thiebaud onto the map of the 1960's New York art scene. Food of various kinds from edible delicacies to more mundane fare were the subject matter of his first New York solo show at Allan Stone's gallery in April of 1962, and Pies, 1961 was featured in Thiebaud's important 1968 solo exhibition that originated at the Pasadena Art Museum. Curated by John Coplans, the exhibition traveled extensively, heralding Thiebaud as an important American artist on the national level. Most notably, Pies and its nearly identical sister painting of the same year, entitled Pies, Pies, Pies (Collection of the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento), mark the shift in Thiebaud's style from one influenced by Abstract Expressionism to the mature representational style for which he has been celebrated since Pies was painted.
In his 1962 review of the Allan Stone exhibition, the critic Max Kozloff wrote, "By some alchemy...Thiebaud does not seem to be working with oil paint at all, but with a substance composed of flour, albumen, butter and sugar." (Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Wayne Thiebaud, 1985, p. 46). This commentary was written when Lichtenstein, Warhol and Oldenburg were also creating new work that was changing a landscape previously dominated by Abstract Expressionism. The afore mentioned artists worked independently of one another, yet simultaneously burst forth with a common interest in subject matter derived from images created for consumption by mass culture. This new Pop sensibility captured the spirit of the American moment of prosperity and abundance. Although Thiebaud would not remain forever linked with the Pop idiom, his Pies is emblematic of the art stemming from this cohesion of events and ideas. The painting's resonance is made even more powerful by its enduring ability to transport us back to the day when these pies were fresh in the pastry display case.
But in fact, these sweet slices of Americana were never baked and sold. Thiebaud's work from the early 1960's is always drawn from memory, never actual objects. Thus, Pies appears as a souvenir composite of the most delicious possibilities that its subject matter can offer, instilling a lingering sense of desire paired with a longing for the flavor that is as American as apple pie. Thiebaud is aware of the power that cultural memory and tradition hold. He explains, "I'm interested in foods generally which have been fooled with ritualistically, displays contrived and arranged in certain ways to tempt us or to seduce us or to religiously transcend us." (Ibid., p. 27). Seeing slice after slice of pie, carefully laid out onto plates also implies the ceremonial acts practiced in preparation for their presentation: the repetitive action of rolling out dough for crust; the careful placement in an oven; and the deliberately precise motion of cutting the slices, always with a heavy downward thrust that produces a perfect piece.
Thiebaud uses paint to investigate the perfection of these pieces of pie. At first glance, each piece of lemon or cherry pie seems cut from the same mold and therefore closely linked to Pop art's investigation of mass production. Upon closer inspection, the handling of the paint, as fluffy as air-whipped meringue or as syrupy as a cherry fruit filling, oozes and dances differently for each slice. Thiebaud employs this careful slathering in a way that celebrates uniqueness and difference rather than uniformity. Some ineffable quality of the enjoyment to be derived from each slice is indicated through the emotion infused in the artist's brushstroke. In this way, Thiebaud is working in a manner more closely akin to the Abstract Expressionists, than the slick practitioners of Pop based in New York City.
The layout of the overall composition owes much to Thiebaud's professional experiences as an illustrator and cartoonist, a background famously shared by many Pop artists. Thiebaud explains, "Working from memory, I tried to arrange [the objects] in the same way that an art director arranges things...I tried to be more careful, tried to be more refined and interesting in terms of relationships." (Ibid., p. 35). Thiebaud supplemented the commercial nature of his layouts with his deep knowledge of painting. Indeed, his classically horizontal composition echoes the tension present in Giorgio Morandi's still-life paintings. In the 1954 painting, Natura Morta, Morandi's evenly spaced bottles stand like sentinels, pushed to the fore of the picture plane, a bowl appearing in the background like a nefarious interloper. The relationship created between these ordinary objects, placed on a simple spatial plane divided by a high horizon line, can also be seen in Thiebaud's Pies: both possess a feeling of calm, countered by the tension created by the objects' proximity to one another. The rich tones of the warm whites are inviting settings for both images that are at once isolating and enticing, and a careful brushstroke caresses the outlines of the objects.
This combination of accessible, popular subject mater and deep interest in the history of painting continues to be a powerful combination in the work of Thiebaud. The subject matter of Pies, 1961 speaks to affinities with Pop Art, while the luscious treatment of paint belies Thiebaud's admiration of the modern masters like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. The beautifully worked surface is the seductive invitation to participate in the recognition of and desire for the "increasingly nostalgic icons of disappearing Americana" that Thiebaud has culled from his memory and offers up for our enjoyment. (Exh. Cat., Palm Springs Art Museum, Wayne Thiebaud: Seventy Years of Painting, 2009, p. 11).