Wayne Thiebaud’s purchase of a second home on Potrero Hill in San Francisco marked a significant change in his style. The sharply curving and steeply inclined streets of the city quickly became the focus of a series of cityscapes executed throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Painter Richard Diebenkorn, who spent considerable time painting and abstracting the streets and hills of San Francisco, was an important influence on Thiebaud during this period. Questions of perspective, horizon, and verticality in particular fascinated Thiebaud. His 1979 etching Freeway Curve exhibits his adaptation of a traditionally Eastern perspective, which “pushes out” and telescopically flattens space. Indeed, Thiebaud frequently used a telescope to study locations from his studio, which greatly influenced his handling of perspective. Freeway Curve’s dramatically arching lanes of traffic do not have the mathematical exactness associated with western one-point perspective. Rather, they appear fantastical and unreal to a “classically” trained viewer.
Freeway Curve treads the curious boundary between real and unreal in other formal elements as well. In essence, the picture consists of a massive arc descending from the top left corner to the bottom right. This vast bulk revolves around the lower left corner, as do the multitude of narrower bands and lines which comprise it. The larger bands contain lines of vehicles, which grow steadily unidentifiable as the viewer follows the curve in a counterclockwise fashion. While the viewer cannot help but recognize the image as a freeway, its sheer size, complexity, and dizzying sense of motion give it overwhelmingly fictional overtones. One finds difficulty believing that such a thing exists. The piece itself uses only six colors: black, white, and two shades each of blue and gray. Mere splashes of color, sometimes outlined by shaky and smudged lines, constitute objects such as vehicles and signs. While this presentation invokes that of a child’s coloring book, from afar one perceives a striking sort of photorealism.
Freeway Curve also embodies the artist’s growing fascination with highways, traffic, and the commuter lifestyle. Having learned to drive by age 12, Wayne Thiebaud, in his own words, “Remained interested in the city as a human enterprise, and the pile of human tracks it contains and the byways of living and moving,” (Nash 31). By the late 70’s, he began to paint and sketch California’s numerous and congested freeways. These studies grew quite distinct from his earlier “static” cityscapes comprised of San Francisco streets and buildings. In particular, Thiebaud’s freeway pieces emphasize both time and motion. While his blurred forms and blotchy coloration immediately invokes an Impressionist style, his bold and slashing strokes seem equally indebted to Abstract Expressionism. Together, these styles capture the fleeting image of a modern society on the go.
Works such as Freeway Curve, however, were not so much critiques of industrialization as they were celebrations of the time and place of their creator. Thiebaud’s relocation to Potrero Hill put him in close proximity to US Route 101 and Interstate 280, which ran through the district. Though Freeway Curve likely portrays these or similar sections of San Francisco freeway, it is perhaps more accurate to call Freeway Curve a mixture of one or more real life freeway curves. After sketching his works on site Thiebaud preferred to rework and modify the final images in the studio. Here, he frequently combined elements of different locales to create more imaginative renderings. While the features of this new metropolitan landscape presented fascinating artistic challenges, their larger significance was certainly not lost on Thiebaud. The vast concrete bulk of Freeway Curve represents the face of a changing California, an increasingly urban landscape which the artist felt compelled to immortalize. Freeway Curve, as an artistic interpretation of its real life counterpart, reveals the broad range of Wayne Thiebaud’s influences. His use of etching immediately speaks to his background in commercial media and the “mass produced” nature of cartooning. A reliance on lines, which serve as demarcations for different sections of the etching, invokes in particular his work as a cartoonist. Thiebaud’s interest in Eastern perspective augments another cartooning quality: exaggeration. Freeway Curve’s distorted perspective, skewed scale, and massive character make it more a caricature of reality than a traditional landscape. Thiebaud’s striking use of light and shadow also speaks to his love of theatrical lighting. While Freeway Curve echoes Impressionism in its handling of color and preoccupation with lighting effects, Thiebaud’s dramatic and bold handling of light and shadow at times suggests a stage rather than a freeway. The hectic, often cartoonish pace of today’s world could easily be the play.
Nash, Steven A. Wayne Thiebaud, a Paintings Retrospective. New York:
Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.
Tsujimoto, Karen. Wayne Thiebaud. Seattle: University of Washington Press,
Born on November 15, 1920 and raised in Long Beach, California, Morton Wayne Thiebaud began his artistic career at an early age. While he received no formal education in drawing and painting, the young Thiebaud was quickly drawn to cartooning, stage design, and other commercial art forms. By age sixteen he was hired by Walt Disney Studios as an “in-between” animator, but was fired within the year for his pro-union views. The following summer he enrolled in several commercial art courses at Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles, though his extracurricular activities were equally instructive. Thiebaud’s enthusiasm for high school stage crew, in particular, profoundly influenced his artistic style in the use of dramatic lighting and shadows (Tsujimoto 19).
After graduation Thiebaud held a wide variety of jobs. He found work as a freelance cartoonist, stage technician, usher, and illustrator of movie posters. In 1942 Thiebaud joined the United States Army Air Force, and quickly found that his artistic prowess was a valuable resource. Assigned to the Special Services Department, he worked as an army artist and cartoonist, designing posters, murals, and even cartoon strips for the base newspaper of Mather Air Force Base. After the war Thiebaud committed himself to a career in commercial art and cartooning. He held a great many jobs and traveled the country, finding work as a cartoonist, free-lance commercial artist, advertising artist, and eventually a cartoonist and layout director in Los Angeles’ Rexall Drug Company. Here he met the artist Robert Mallary, whose friendship and teaching encouraged him to study the fine arts.
At the age of 29 Wayne Thiebaud enrolled in San Jose State College to formally pursue a career as a painter. After graduation he began to teach, pursue his masters degree, and exhibit in the Sacramento art scene. From 1956-1957 he spent a pivotal year in New York City, during which he became drawn to the Abstract Expressionists. While his encounters with the movement’s notable artists were extremely influential, Thiebaud ultimately returned to realistic imagery and representational painting. Shortly thereafter he began to study the work of representational painters, but his style remained heavily indebted to cartoons and commercial art.
By the 1960’s Wayne Thiebaud had taken a position at UC Davis as an assistant professor of art. It was during this time that he began creating luscious representations of food, particularly cakes and gumballs, which quickly became his signature work. While he came to be branded a Pop artist in the vein of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Thiebaud maintained that he was purely interested in formal qualities. Nevertheless, he too believed that any subject could become art. Thiebaud’s first one-man show in New York City was an instant success. While he enjoyed considerable attention from periodicals (and food lovers everywhere) he was equally fascinated by the landscape of his native California. In time, his bold representations of California landscapes and cityscapes became well known.
Tsujimoto, Karen. Wayne Thiebaud. Seattle: University of Washington Press,