- Wayne Thiebaud
- Woman in Tub
- signed and dated 1965 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 35 3/4 by 60 in. 90.8 by 152.4 cm.
Mrs. Christophe Thurman, New York
James Corcoran Gallery, San Francisco
Acquired by the present owner from the above in March 1978
San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum; Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum; Columbus, Columbus Museum of Art; and Kansas City, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Wayne Thiebaud, September 1985 - November 1986, p. 113, no. 18, pl. 52, illustrated in color and pp. 6-7, illustrated in color (detail)
San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor; Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection; and New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, June 2000 - September 2001, p. 114, no. 43, illustrated in color
Dan Tooker, "Interview with Wayne Thiebaud," Art International, November 15, 1974, p. 23, illustrated and p. 24 (text)
Exh. Cat., Phoenix, Phoenix Art Museum (and travelling), Wayne Thiebaud: Survey 1947-1976, 1976, p. 108 (text)
Pamela Jeffcott Parry, Contemporary Art and Artists: An Index to Reproductions, Westport, Connecticut, 1978, p. 274 (text)
Following the pivotal success of his paintings of cakes and pies exhibited at Allan Stone Gallery in 1962-63, and after nearly a decade dedicated to the interrogation of the still-life genre, it was in 1963 that Thiebaud shifted his interest and began to explore the human form as a recurring subject. Previously using everyday objects from mass-culture, Thiebaud had developed an idiosyncratic style of painting that harnessed a uniquely paradoxical character: one that showed objects as highly familiar and sensually evocative, yet unsettlingly hollow at the same time. Aiming at a purified objectivity, Thiebaud offered a curiously unemotive view of life’s simple pleasures. To some, his highly formalized rows of cakes, ice creams and pinball machines formed a visual metaphor for ‘the uncanny’; an apt exploration of the ubiquity of manufactured pleasure and the products that signify its pervasive presence in modern American life. Presented with acute clarity and hyper-formal organization, the distinct lack of human presence in these regimented tableaux was fundamental to the alluring sense of uncanny that they exuded. It would seem that reintroducing the figure into his own stylistic idiom would be Thiebaud’s most radical move. Indeed Thiebaud himself recognized the challenge that the human subject presented: "I think it's the most important study there is and the most challenging and the most difficult." (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Wayne Thiebaud, 1985, p. 103)
Painted in 1965, the present work epitomizes Thiebaud’s successful transferral of his iconic modernism to the figurative genre. We encounter a surreal vision of a head anchored by strict architectonics caressed in a cool yet eerily calm light. This depiction of a figure bathing stands as a profound extension of the artist’s early investigations into light, color and form. The horizontal canvas is divided into a series of rectangular planes each executed in a subtle variation of white tinted with blues, violets or yellow. Whilst these horizontal bands play into the purported structure of the bathtub, Thiebaud has extended them beyond realistic proportions so that they continue outside the picture frame creating an expanse of modernist architectural space. As such, our figure finds herself in a stylized environment that recalls the continuous grid lines of modernist pioneer Piet Mondrian, whilst foreshadowing the planar pastel abstraction and expansive geometries of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings. Born of Thiebaud's longstanding preoccupation with the formalist concerns of the picture plane and perspective, Woman in Tub abstracts the simple act of bathing into a calculated work of design which sings of architectural integrity.
Whilst the present work speaks of a visual austerity at the heart of the modernist aesthetic agenda, the sparse ground provides space for intense visual analysis of the human subject. In line with his preceding still-life paintings, Thiebaud attempts here to objectify the model to an extreme degree. Unexpressive and unengaged with her surroundings, the figure transmits an unsettling passivity that provides a catalyst for multiple interpretative registers. As noted by Steven A. Nash, much like Thiebaud’s great influence Edward Hopper, Woman in Tub demonstrates how an “effort to avoid expressiveness can often yield an effect of mute isolation that in itself becomes expressive.” (Steven A. Nash, "Unbalancing Acts: Wayne Thiebaud Reconsidered" in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (and travelling), Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, 2000, p. 24) Painted at near life-size proportions and illuminated in an all-revealing light, Woman in Tub verges on the surreal whilst remaining familiar. As we focus on a face locked in unknowable existential contemplation we encounter a blank canvas on which to project our own humanity. Perfectly surmised by curator Karen Tsujimoto, when we view Thiebaud’s figures “we are prompted to question their meaning and, in the process, are made much more aware of our own solitary existence. It is our life alone that imbues these figures with meaning." (Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Wayne Thiebaud, 1985, p. 106)