A captivating example of Wayne Thiebaud’s singular painterly exploration of the American psyche, Encased Cakes from 2010/2011 allures not only in the lusciously delectable pastries it offers, but also in its sumptuous use of color and masterful command of brushstroke and shadow. Best known for his iconic paintings of cakes, pies, and other confectionery arranged in a classic diner or cafeteria style display, Thiebaud’s paintings such as Encased Cakes constitute the very apogee of his prodigious oeuvre. First devised in 1961 at the onset of Thiebaud’s artistic career and periodically revisited, the confectionery motif has continued to charm and delight over the course of nearly seven decades. Reinventing the traditional still-life genre to reflect the age of mass production and consumption, Thiebaud’s culinary compositions retain a nuanced dialogue with art history while deftly capturing the spirited exuberance and prosperity of 1960s America. Framed with careful precision and rendered with extraordinary attention to detail, Thiebaud infuses the carefully rendered scene with a profound aura of shared nostalgia, illuminating the extraordinary mastery of the contemporary zeitgeist which has distinguished his iconic oeuvre. While clearly rooted in experience, Thiebaud’s Encased Cakes evades specific association and acquires the quality of a memory, the mundane surroundings falling away to leave only the essential image behind which, amplified by the passage of time, adopts vibrant, expressionistic hues. 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.” (The artist quoted in John Arthur, Realists at Work, New York, 1983, p. 120)
Meticulously arranged along the iridescent white shelves of a bakery counter, the six impeccably composed cakes of Encased Cakes tantalize the viewer. Illuminated as if by a theatrical spotlight, the cakes glisten beneath the sheer glass of their enclosure. Demonstrating Thiebaud’s exceptional mastery of color, vibrant hues of yellows, oranges, and pinks is here set against sharp pools of cornflower blue shadows punctuate the composition, their unexpected and electrifying tones giving the cakes an eye-catching liveliness that far surpasses what is expected of an otherwise prosaic subject matter. Painting in thick swathes of impasto that rise off the canvas in light, stiff peaks, Thiebaud brilliantly mimics the frosted crests of freshly iced cakes, each ornately embellished with flowers, fruits, and decorative icing. Rendered against a blue-gray wall and placed on a pale pink floor, the cake case is devoid of any surrounding context, and the objects grounded only by their neat, overly accentuated shadows. Against this muted backdrop of grays and pastel hues of pink and green, Thiebaud articulates space and form with thin strokes of vibrant neon greens, blues, and oranges that endow the composition as a whole with a sharp organizational structure and strong sense of geometric line. As is his signature style, Thiebaud has here isolated his subject matter, simplified it to its basic formal elements, and aligned it in a strictly ordered progression comparable to traditional architectonic principles. Through this process, Thiebaud exercises a considerable degree of non-objective experimentation with form, color and composition.
Carefully composed and rigorously attentive to the precise formal arrangement of its elements, Thiebaud’s Encased Cakes is informed by his former professional experience as a commercial illustrator and consequential preoccupation with visual order. Elaborating on his compositional strategy, Thieabud 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 quoted in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, 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 silhouette. In the present work, the artist has depicted the cakes with unexpected exaggerations of pinks, yellows, whites, and neon orange that lend sensational chromatic depth to the forms. Rendered in Thiebaud’s precise brushstrokes, the thick impasto accentuates and activates every form upon the surface of the canvas.
Though readily remembered as a Pop artist, Thiebaud differs from his contemporaries such as Oldenburg and Lichtenstein in that his aim is not to critique society but rather to celebrate and remember it. Foregoing the cynicism and ironic appropriation so typical of Pop Art in favor of careful, sincere consideration of familiar images, Thiebaud’s work functions as an honest and commemorative societal mirror based not only on personal, but more importantly, collective memory. Art critic Adam Gopnik 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) Imbuing his composition with a sense of nostalgia that is echoed through his masterful articulation of light and shadow, Thiebaud is in fact more closely aligned with Edward Hopper’s paintings of urban life. A superb example of Thiebaud’s most praised compositions of confections and desserts, the present Encased Cakes endures as a powerful tribute to the cultural consciousness of 1960s America.
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