In Ripley Street Ridge, executed in 1976, Wayne Thiebaud’s brilliant palette and luscious handling of rich oil paint create a layered dialogue between realism and abstraction, in which the intensity of light, the play of shadow, and the conversation between architecture, street, and sky capture the true essence of Thiebaud’s beloved San Francisco. Thiebaud has long been recognized as one of America’s most prominent and celebrated artists for his paintings of pies and cakes, delicatessen counters, figure studies, and cityscapes that restructure space and perspective. The improbable geometry of Thiebaud’s San Francisco streetscapes, with their steep hills and dramatic horizon lines, demonstrates the complexities of form and structure inherent in Thiebaud’s practice. The thick impasto and candy-colored accents of paint lend the work a kaleidoscopic luminosity that brings to mind the iconic compositions of edible goods painted throughout his impressive and storied career. In Ripley Street Ridge, Thiebaud’s acute sensibility for color and texture packs a powerful visual punch, inviting viewers to return, again and again, to examine the sensuous surface. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s recent acquisition of Ripley Ridge (1977), a slightly larger canvas painted the following year— which depicts the very same scene as the present work— further affirms the position of this painting among the most iconic and significant examples of the artist’s oeuvre from this period.
Ripley Street Ridge captures the post-war landscape of San Francisco, marking a significant shift from the still-life and figurative subjects that primarily preoccupied the artist in the 1960s and early 1970s. Painted in 1976, just four years after Thiebaud’s move to the city, Ripley Street Ridge demonstrates the artist’s fascination with the contradictions of urban life coexisting in a scene of extreme foreshortening and shifting perspectives. The precise articulation of the buildings and California sky demonstrate the artist’s keen interest in representation, yet the focus on atmospheric color and light rather than line or ground reveals Thiebaud’s masterful technique and concern with abstraction as a device. The dynamic topography of San Francisco, with its steep hills and dramatic viewpoints, was the perfect inspiration and platform for exaggerating spatial dynamics and investigating the intricacies of composing a painting. Thiebaud recalls, “I was playing around with the abstract notion of edge–I was fascinated, living in San Francisco, by the way different streets just came in and then just vanished” (The artist in Exh. Cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, 2000, p. 58). Beyond the vanishing streets, Thiebaud pushes the horizon line to the top of the canvas and envelops the left side of the painting in the suggestion of a seemingly endless blue sky that solidifies the earth-ground orientation. In his detailing of the windows and rooftops that populate the street in question, Thiebaud ensures the shapes and vivid colors of this scene are not perceived as merely abstract forms.
Through his work, Thiebaud explores non-objective experimentation with form, color and composition. Upon closer inspection, Thiebaud’s mastery of the arrangement of color and form in Ripley Street Ridge echoes the condensed structural organization as several of Pierre Matisse’s paintings, such as Interior at Nice from 1919. Here, Matisse explores a range of rich colors both cool and warm to capture the lush textures and patterns adorning the sitter’s lavish home overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The hard edge of the large open door creates a dramatic perspective that similarly foreshortens the sea, allowing the artist to capture the expansive landscape beyond the interior space articulated on canvas through the interplay of vertical and horizontal lines. Interestingly, both Matisse and Thiebaud’s handling of rich oil paint translates into nearly identical palm trees that appear in both compositions despite the artists’ unique and divergent painting styles.
Furthermore, Thiebaud’s experimentation and play between abstraction and realism calls to mind the work of Richard Diebenkorn and his Ocean Park series, in particular Ocean Park #19, which is in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Thiebaud’s geometrically complex cityscapes are networks of faceted, interlocking planes of light and color, which convincingly portray the dramatic vantage points and pitched perspectives of San Francisco, while verging on pure abstraction through the collapse of spatial depth and sweeping swaths of color. Fellow Californians, Thiebaud and Diebenkorn share a love of light and each possesses an ineffable genius for capturing the fleeting qualities of light and shadow with his brush. On the surface, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series and Thiebaud’s landscapes and cityscapes strike us as being very different in their use of color and composition, but what they share is a concise pictoral vocabulary. Despite having a style and technique all his own, Thiebaud and his work pay homage to a long genealogy of artists, including Edward Hopper, Piet Mondrian and Giorgio Morandi, among others. Thiebaud himself remarked, “I’m very influenced by the tradition of painting and not at all self-conscious about identifying my sources” (The artist in Exh. Cat., Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, 2000, p. 11).
In the spring of 1961, several years before the present work was painted, Thiebaud found himself in New York seeking gallery representation. Dealer Allan Stone encountered the discouraged artist outside his 82nd Street gallery following a long day of dealer visits. Stone, among the ranks of pre-eminent New York dealers, such as Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis, instinctively liked the artist and was intrigued by his works, which were far different than those of the Abstract Expressionist artists dominating the New York art scene. Thiebaud’s paintings are so serenely poised in their geometry, actively asserted in their space and haloed with punchy color that they seductively vibrate and resonate before the eye. Stone’s partnership and mentorship allowed Thiebaud to remain removed from the New York art world, geographically and creatively, while still experiencing national critical success. Thiebaud praised Stone following his first 1962 show at the Allan Stone Gallery saying, “Allan really then became a friend. He was very, very careful with the work. He tried to ensure that it wouldn’t be collected by people who were just interested in the kind of dynamics of the art world” (Wayne Thiebaud in Oral history interview with Wayne Thiebaud, 2001 May 17-18, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution). Ripley Street Ridge, first sold through Allan Stone Gallery, caught the renowned dealer’s eye and was therefore destined to remain in the collections of true taste-making collectors.
Thiebaud’s cityscapes such as Ripley Street Ridge provided the perfect forum through which he could explore the opposing tensions between modern abstraction and classic representation. As he observed, “There is an element of oriental art in them, that kind of flattening out of planes–and a lot of playing around...San Francisco is a fantasy city. It’s easy to make it into a pretend city, a kind of fairy tale” (The artist in Exh. Cat., Wayne Thiebaud: A Retrospective, 2000, p. 58).
Thiebaud’s reference to ‘fantasy’ sheds light on the fact that his street scenes are not simply mere acts of observation, but also dynamic explorations of form and color. Thiebaud exercises any number of manipulations in the arrangement of elements, from color to light to texture of paint, to produce paintings that are, first and foremost, vibrant artistic constructions. Thiebaud’s distinctive painterly technique and kaleidoscopic use of color pay homage to his vibrant California lifestyle and landscape, telling the tale of the artist’s enduring romance with San Francisco. Thiebaud, celebrating his 99th birthday on the day of the Contemporary Art Day Auction, has long delighted in painting the impossible by celebrating the flatness of his paintings’ surfaces while capturing the nearly vertical hills of San Francisco. Ripley Street Ridge stands out as a museum-quality work in which Thiebaud pushes toward abstraction without ever crossing over in a way only he can master.
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