Lined up across the canvas of Four Pinball Machines (Study), four brightly colored game consoles face the viewer, awaiting the engagement of a player with palpable anticipation. While two of the machines confront the viewer head on, the other two, due to Thiebaud’s use of close-cut perspective, elude the full inspection of the viewer’s gaze. Cast across the sky-blue wall and variegated floor, the neat shadows of the four machines lend the objects a sense of mass and volume that defies the two-dimensional limitations of the canvas. Isolated from their surrounding context, the machines are highly representative of Thiebaud’s signature style, by which the artist imbues quotidian objects and images with startling significance. Carefully composed, his selections acquire the quality of memories, the mundane surroundings falling away to leave only the essential image behind. Describing this quality in his painting, Thiebaud reflects: "Most of the objects are fragments of actual experience. For instance, I would really think of the bakery counter, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience…Those little vedute in fragmented circumstances were always poetic to me.” (Wayne Thiebaud in John Arthur, Realists at Work, New York, 1983, p. 120) Consistent with such iconic paintings by the artist as Three Machines, 1963 and Cakes, 1963, the layout of Four Pinball Machines (Study) is informed by his former professional experience as a commercial illustrator and his consequential preoccupation with visual order. Elaborating on his compositional strategy, Thiebaud has said: “Working from memory, I tried to arrange [the objects] in the same way that an art director arranges things…I tried to be more refined and interesting in terms of relationships.” (The artist in Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Wayne Thiebaud, 1985, p. 35) Demonstrating an exceptional mastery of color, Thiebaud here employs a technique known as ‘halatation,’ juxtaposing 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, the artist has rendered the machines with unexpected exaggerations of white, red, yellow, blue and neon orange that lend sensational chromatic depth to the forms. Richly articulating Thiebaud’s precise brushstrokes, the thick impasto accentuates and activates every form upon the surface of the canvas.
A superb example of Thiebaud’s best known early works based on confections, desserts and games, Four Pinball Machines (Study) endures as a powerful tribute to the cultural consciousness of the 1960s in America. Indeed, the exuberant imagery of the artist’s pinball machines, each playfully adorned with targets, stars, numbers, and symbols, is echoed in the work of such artists as Jasper Johns, whose Target paintings emerged in the late 1950s, and his peer Robert Indiana. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Thiebaud forgoes the cynicism and ironic appropriation so typical of Pop Art in favor of careful, sincere consideration of familiar images; one scholar describes: “His method…has the effect not of eliminating the Pop resonance of his subjects but of slowing down and chastening the associations they evoke, so that a host of ambivalent feelings—nostalgic and satiric and elegiac—can come back later, calmed down and contemplative: enlightened.” (Adam Gopnik, “The Art World: Window Gazing,” in The New Yorker, April 29, 1991, p. 80) Exemplifying the exquisite sentimentality of the artist’s oeuvre, Four Pinball Machines (Study) achieves a vitality and liveliness which far surpasses the simplicity of the subject matter. As eloquently summarized by Steven Nash: “Thiebaud’s [works] 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., San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, 2000, p. 35)
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