In Nude, as in his other figure paintings, Thiebaud deliberately avoids placing the figure in a context that would lead to an implied narrative. By positioning the figure in a descriptive vacuum, Thiebaud draws out the moments that exist either before or after an action takes place, preventing any particular emotion or mood to attach itself to the subject. As he explained: “It occurs to me that most people in figure paintings have always done something. The figures have been standing posing, fighting, loving, and what I’m interested in, really, is the figure that is about to do something, or has done something, or is doing nothing, and, with that sort of centering device, try to figure out what can be revealed, not only to people, but to myself.” (the artist quoted in Karen Tsujimoto, Exh. Cat., New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Wayne Thiebaud: The Figure, 2008, p. 8) Without any frame of reference, the figure becomes a virtual abstraction, an existential confrontation of facts.
Thiebaud skillfully heightens this impression through his ingenious use of color. The sitter’s body is articulated through strategic highlights of warm coral, honey yellow, and palest lavender, the subtle combinations of which go much further in delineating her figure than do the faint traces of line at her edges. The tones of her flesh are accented by the traces of these colors that gesture at expressing her seat, and by Thiebaud’s signature blue-grey shadows that endow his subjects with remarkable depth and presence. Considering the life-size scale of this work, the figure’s proportions suggest an intimate relationship with the viewer, as we seem to intrude directly into her immediate space; and yet, the blazing spotlight that seems to emphasize and intensify every tone and detail provides a sense of monumentality. Through these deft applications of pigment, Thiebaud has stripped his composition bare, yet maintained all of the impact by using only the most essential elements.
Nude thus represents a masterful treatment of the human figure. Despite its apparent simplicity, its painterly execution and conceptual framework belie a far more complex dialectic. The almost disorienting immediacy of the full-scale figure is still completely inaccessible in her self-contained, impenetrable space. The articulation of her form declares figuration, yet the focus on color and light rather than line or ground suggests abstraction. Nude is enigmatic, raising but not resolving dichotomies, a tableau vivant that illustrates a moment of inexplicable, almost metaphysical evocativeness.
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