Steven Nash, "Thiebaud's Many Realisms" in Exh. Cat., Palm Springs Art Museum (and traveling), Wayne Thiebaud, Seventy Years of Painting, 2007, pp. 19-20
Wayne Thiebaud’s Crossroads distinctly captures the urban landscape of post-war California, marking a significant shift from the still-life and figurative painting so emblematic of the artist’s oeuvre. A West Coast native, Thiebaud grasps the bustling energy of the San Francisco cityscape, effectively conveying the urbanization and expanding car culture that he observed while living in California. Compositionally dynamic and masterfully painted, Crossroads is a captivating representation of the spirit and essence of a city transformed.
With Crossroads, Thiebaud visually reconstructs the complex landscape of San Francisco in the 1970s–the sharp verticals and diagonals perfectly emulate the steep hills and striking horizons so characteristic of the city. The geometric composition portrays the buildings and city streets as visually compelling and structured elements of design. The artist created an aesthetically engaging and formally intriguing scene in which the emphasis is on perspective. Parallels can be seen between Richard Diebenkorn’s iconic Ocean Park series of multifaceted, interlocking planes of color and Thiebaud’s street scenes and cityscapes. Crossroads curiously juxtaposes the buzzing energy and motion of the city with the still, almost hushed architectural landscape.
Painted in Thiebaud’s usual palette of light pastels, the city becomes softer, exuding a sense of nostalgia and familiarity. In this sense, the artist links his street scenes and landscapes to his still-life works–each deliberately painterly, and distinctly his own. He manipulates color, light and even texture to assert his renderings of these paintings as artistic constructions above anything else. Thiebaud’s cityscape paintings served as the perfect vehicle through which he could create imagined constructions of realistic scenes. At first, the artist painted directly at the site of observation, translating what he saw before him onto canvas; however, he found this method to be too restricting. Inspired by the practices of Edward Hopper, he abandoned painting directly at the site of observation, and instead retreated to his studio to paint limitlessly from memory. This allowed Thiebaud to create complex, timeless compositions like Crossroads.
After moving to San Francisco in 1972, Thiebaud’s cityscapes provided the perfect forum through which he could explore the opposing tensions between modern abstraction and classic representation. The geometric composition of the San Francisco cityscape, with its steep hills and dramatic horizons, is the perfect location for exaggerating spatial dynamics and investigating the complexities of form and composition. As Thiebaud observed, “There is an element of oriental art in them, that kind of flattening out of planes – and a lot of playing around…San Francisco is a fantasy city. It’s easy to make it into a pretend city, a kind of fairy tale. There’s an almost Australian sense of quick riches, of hills and precipitousness,” (Exh. Cat., San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Wayne Thiebaud: A Retrospective, 2000, p. 58).
Thiebaud’s reference to ‘fantasy’ is telling as his street scenes are not mere acts of observation rendered in attractive and aesthetic form. Crossroads is more than a visually accessible and easily recognizable streetscape as it serves as a study of form and composition for Thiebaud. By manipulating the arrangement of elements through the use of color, light and paint texture the painting becomes an artistic construction much like the architecture it strives to represent. The primacy of process and composition is reflected in the evolution of the artist’s working method as he relied on memory and imagination, leading to increased complexity and freedom of invention. In paintings such as Crossroads, Thiebaud's streetscapes are networks of faceted, interlocking planes of light and color, which convincingly portray the dramatic vantage points and pitched perspectives of his Northern California home, while at the same time verging on pure abstractions transforming horizontal scenes into vertical pictures.
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