Wayne Thiebaud’s artistic practice is deeply tied to the state of California, its culture and people. The artist first rendered the urban landscape of San Francisco after buying a home in the city in 1973, but his interest in the idiosyncrasies of the urban terrain finds its origin in the most formative and foundational experiences of his youth. Describing an early memory, the artist states: "[w]hen I was about 8 years old, [my uncle] gave me a little toy bulldozer and scraper and cars, and invited me to go and make this little world out in the backyard. And, for some reason or other, it was a very intriguing and memorable thing to do. I had this earth place where I could make roads, tunnels, little buildings, and trees and make my own world and I've remained interested in the city as a human enterprise, and the pile of human tracks it contains and the byways of living and moving" (the artist in conversation with Richard Wollheim, Wayne Thiebaud: Cityscapes, San Francisco 1993, n.p.). This whimsical spirit of play, fostered by Thiebaud’s childhood experiences crafting miniature cities of his own, is combined with a virtuosic painterly control in the present work. Civic Center is dominated by angular thrusts and intersecting lines. The intricately constructed composition of the present work is resplendent with steep hillsides, swelling skyscrapers, winding paths and wide boulevards. Angular shadows cast by buildings in the raking light of dusk bisect the sharp diagonal of the pavement, overlaying the organic wave of the road cutting its way through the park at the center. As a site of formal investigation, Civic Center subverts the standard illusionistic toolset, skewing the scale of objects in their relation to the landscape and each other with a sharp clarity of line and vision. More than a generalized dreamworld, the present work is rife with distinct and highly detailed architectural features, and one can sense Thiebaud’s technical ingenuity as well as his clear sense of wonder and discovery in rendering the landscape.
While works like Civic Center are intrinsically tied to the lived experience of the unique geography of San Francisco, with its steep inclines and sweeping vistas, the impossible angles and spatial distortions of the present work are only made possible by compositing multiple viewpoints and synthesizing them into a single composition. Describing the genesis of the series to which the present work belongs, Thiebaud explains: “I’ve always painted out-of-doors, with a French easel, some in the city, but not very much. So I started from the San Francisco intersection […] After painting directly on the street, and making 20 or 30 pictures that way, I felt none of them were very successful. The reason for not feeling that they were delivering on what I had hope for had to do with some sort of dramatic feeling in this peculiar San Francisco landscape […] I went back to the studio, and began to make a lot drawings with graphite or charcoal on paper, which I could move around a lot, to offer more the kind of visual and physical feeling that was closer to the idea of San Francisco. So, when I returned to the painting again, the city itself looked more like the composite drawings I had been making. And that dialogue between what was actually there and what was made up became the basis of the entire series” (ibid). By combining multiple viewpoints in one, both real and imagined, Thiebaud channels the inroads of early Modernism, referring to Picasso, Braque and Léger and their achievements in Cubism, as well as the angular and faceted topographical approach of artists more contemporary to his practice, such as Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Hopper. Two-dimensional space and three-dimensional space are made synonymous in Civic Center, with depth, distance, light and shadow flattened into a mosaic-like framework, arranged by the artist for emotional effect.
While form is integral to the conceptual structure of Civic Center, color also takes on an expanded role in Thiebaud’s artistic world. Famous for his bold use of vibrant, often clashing colors to depict mundane objects and scenes, the artist uses color as an important compositional tool in the present work. Thiebaud utilizes a kaleidoscopic palette, running through the full spectrum to create a scene which exudes the clinging warmth of sunset at the end of a summer’s day. Bathed in the glow of the disappearing sun, the quality of light in Civic Center has calming emotional resonances, which act as a salve to the disjunctive visual juxtapositions Thiebaud crafts in the complicated architectural setting. Describing the relationship between the artist’s purely formal and chromatic strategies in his cityscapes, Steven Nash states: “[w]hen Thiebaud wants to stretch for a big effect, he has no trouble with drama, expansiveness, or even a kind of sublimity [...] Steep precipices that overwhelm human presence and excite a sense of terribilita, danger, or fear are common [...] Integral with the grandeur of nature, or nature transformed by man, is the power of natural light to illuminate, even dazzle and inspire [...] The light is more than a matter of energy and science. It is an embodiment of emotion. For Thiebaud it surely is not religious or symbolic in a conventional sense, but is nevertheless celebratory and life affirming" (Steven Nash, "Thiebaud's Many Realisms" in: Wayne Thiebaud, Seventy Years of Painting, Palm Springs 2007, pp. 19-20). In Civic Center, color and shape inform each other, bringing the viewer on an emotional journey inspired by a wonder rooted at the intersection of lived experience and the limitless potential inherent to imagination.
Despite its variegated and layered urban composition—an inherently active subject matter—Civic Center has a remarkable stillness and calm. A single trolley in the foreground is the most obvious sign of life, but all other evidence of the activity of San Francisco at the end of the work day is washed away, with the scene frozen into a serene vignette. While Thiebaud’s mastery over the abstraction of space is evident in the warped geometries and exaggerated topographical proportions of Civic Center, the abstraction of time is intrinsic to the work’s evocative powers. Describing this effect, the artist states: “[t]here are two things. One is something to do with empathy, and drama, and the way it gives you different kinds of caricature, space caricature or color caricature, or even where you push things further than a single projective system might let you. And in this way you are helped to get the feeling of things, the way things physically feel” (the artist in conversation with Richard Wollheim, Wayne Thiebaud: Cityscapes, San Francisco 1993, n.p.). Real and imagined, frenetic and serene, Civic Center has this “feeling,” occupying the space between perception and emotional experience.
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