- Wayne Thiebaud
- Hors D'oeuvres
- signed and dated 1963
- oil on canvas
- 5 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches
Collection of Larry Aldrich, Connecticut (acquired from the above in January 1964)
Christie's, New York, 9 November 1988, Lot 80
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Wayne Thiebaud’s fixation on the ritualization and consumption of food is apparent in his 1963 painting, Hors D'oeuvres. Executed at the beginning of his mature period, the present work illuminates the role of ceremony in the presentation of food as a proxy for nostalgia in American culture. Hors D'oeuvres evokes a cocktail party where each hors d'oeuvre has been delicately arranged in a row, with cheese and accoutrements placed just so. The positioning of each object corresponds to the thick, delicious brushstrokes of Thiebaud’s work, each canapé radiating light from within. Snacking is America’s other great pastime, and the present work pays homage to the accessibility and joy small things can bring.
Thiebaud’s interest in light and shadow is evident in Hors D'oeuvres. As the artist once remarked, “the problem of the painter is to have the painting create its own light – that’s the theory of painting” (Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Wayne Thiebaud, 1985, p. 33). In the present work, Thiebaud demonstrates his command of ‘the theory of painting.’ He uses a full spectrum of colors to create light and shadows in his composition. The shadows are never black; a lustrous blue highlights the richness of the light emanating from the right onto the hors-d'oeuvres. The whites are never white; each highlight is tinted with the rainbows of color, enhancing its appetizing vibrancy. Following in the footsteps of other great American painters like Edward Hopper, Thiebaud show a complete mastery of this interplay of light and shadow, crafting his mundane subject as something extraordinary.
Fully aware of his contemporaries working in abstract modes, the artist saw himself as a traditional painter interested in the concept of realism. Thick with impasto, the present work displays Thiebaud’s finest technique. The perspective is slightly raised, with three rows of nearly three-dimensional hors d'oeuvres placed in horizontal lines establishing the composition in a grid. Through Thiebaud’s brush, each appetizer is not simple food on a plate, but instead an object to be revered and celebrated. The use of the grid allows for charged negative space, a stylistic hallmark of the artist’s oeuvre that affords his subjects breathing room, addressing Modernist formal concerns typically seen in Malevich or Mondrian’s abstract blocks of color through his depiction of food. 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 crackers, cheese, and stylized canapé toppings. Consistent with Thiebaud’s best works, the layout of the composition in Hors D'oeuvres is informed by his former professional experience as a commercial illustrator and his consequential preoccupation with ritualization and order. Thiebaud explains that “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). By focusing on three rudimentary shapes—the circle, square and triangle—and using serial repetition throughout his composition, Thiebaud engages the most basic elements of pictorial representation to render an extraordinary scene, akin to elevation of quotidian food products to the realm of the icon. With each row extending off the edge of the canvas, the hors d'oeuvres speak to an insatiable cultural appetite for consumption and excess, as well as the singular beauty and pleasure that can be found in the everyday.
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 each delectable appetizer with unexpected exaggerations of neon orange, pink, yellow and red 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 mundane passed appetizer.
A magnificent companion to Thiebaud’s best known early works based on cakes, pies, ice cream, gumball machines, and parfaits, Hors D'oeuvres 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 objects 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).