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January 15, 2013

The Delicious World of Wayne Thiebaud

Cakes. Wayne Thiebaud, 1963.

I can't believe Wayne Thiebaud hasn't featured on The Swelle Life before now. I remember seeing the American painter's work - he shuns the title of artist, looking down on "art" as "an abstract term that's still developing" - in art class in high school, it was one of his iconic dessert paintings and my eyes lingered on it for half a second before I turned the page in my survey text book. I didn't get it, I was too wrapped up in the fascinating, salacious and just plain weird lives and works of the Surrealists. At a time where adolescence is transitioning awkwardly into adulthood, the perpetual child-like curiosity and dreamstate exploration of the Surrealists just fit the teenage brain so well. 

We're looking at Wayne Thiebaud now because I became reacquainted with his cakes the other day, playing Go Fish with my daughter, of all things. We were using a deck of Modern Art cards I bought her that are made for the game  - a great way for children to learn the names of Modern artists and their works, and it comes in a set for Contemporary as well - and when it was her turn she asked me if I had any Wayne Thiebauds. A bell rung and I said Go Fish, and then later when I picked one up myself I looked at it with fresh eyes and realised I'd wasted so much time not appreciating what he did in 1960s, and what he is still doing. Yes, he is still with us at 92 years of age and incredibly, he still paints and does it as well as he ever did. In 2010 he created the google 12th birthday logo; it was of course, a birthday cake:


Like a Cezanne bowl of fruit, there's much more happening in Thiebaud's still lifes beyond his simple subject, whether it be a sundae, lipsticks, or a toilet. My initial response is noticing the presence of the subject; these are dramatic little pastries with their heavy, punctuating shadows that could not be reproduced in reality, and colours in acid hues that really stick. What I love is how each individual object, when conveyed as part of a group, has its own set of qualities and occupies its own space apart from what surrounds it. (This is the point where my dad is reading this, leans forward, squints and asks "Really?") What's been noted about Thiebaud's earliest work is its obvious 'pop' qualities derived from its focus on objects of mass culture, yet they predate Pop Art, suggesting that he may have influenced the movement. I'll take Thiebaud over Warhol any day. I can feel Thiebaud. 

For more about Wayne Thiebaud and to further understand (and fall in love with ) his work, watch the Smithsonian's video 


Wayne Thiebaud with one of his wonderful streetscapes. Like his still lifes, they also prompt us to look beneath the surface. 



















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Thanks for the article and pictures. I am a big Thiebaud fan too. His landscapes and figure paintings are also wonderful. I think the picture of the cakes at the beginning of your article does not look right. That painting is in the National Gallery in Washington DC.

Best, David

Hi David,

Thanks very much! That's interesting about the header photo - is it too refined? I haven't seen the original but it does look rather slick, doesn't it? Very minimal in that usually yummy Thiebaud texture.

I live in England but I'm from Toronto where I visit yearly and I'm trying to figure out where the nearest Thiebaud would be, I've never seen one of his works in person and would love to. If you happen to know I'd appreciate a point in the right direction!

Best wishes,

I am in TOTAL agreement...I will take Thiebaud over Warhol anyday as well. Great stuff. I live in Sacramento and know Theibaud's Children one who himself is a well known artist (Matt Bolt). What a Charming man Wayne is! Just like his work! Thanx for the lovely reminder of the days of charm and the man himself!!

Thanks so much for that, Tammera! I'm off to check out Matt Bolt. I recall reading that one of his other sons had taken over the selling of his work at one point? I'm wondering if Wayne is a bit like Bill Cunningham with all of that talent, wisdom, charm and warmth? Thanks again for the first-hand details! Denise x

Hi Denise,

I am trying to think of Thiebaud paintings around Toronto, but don't know of any. I just saw a great exhibition of his work at Acquavella in New York. Too bad you missed that! There was a great picture of yo-yo's in the exhibit (and it is on the poster for the show). That painting is at the Albert-Knox Museum in Buffalo, NY. That is the closest one I know of. Surprisingly, there are very few Thiebauds on view in New York, but there's a nice one at the Whitney (but it may not be on view). New York is more Warhol-oriented, unfortunately. Alternatively, I think there are number of nice ones in museums in Kansas City, and a big one in Nebraska. Of course, there are many exhibited in the Bay Area: the de Young in San Francisco has the most (the one you posted of three gumball machines is at the de Young), and the art museum at Stanford (which is free to the public) has a great one of a lunch counter. The Crocker Art museum in Sacramento (where he lives and works) has two really great examples of paintings of pies.

Faggianato Fine Arts in London had a few exhibitions of his work. They showed a really funny one of stuffed animals and dolls in a shelf. You might want to see it on their website. I don't know whether they still show his work.

I didn't really explain what I meant about the header photo of the cakes. I don't think that is a picture of the actual painting of Cakes (1963). A few years ago a photographer artists starting making photographs of cakes and pies which were intended to copy Thiebaud paintings: so the photographer would bake cakes and arrange them, and the lighting to look like some of Thiebaud's more famous paintings. There is some conceptual aspect of this that is beyond me. In any case, they appear on the internet, and I think you posted one of the photographer's photographs, and not a photograph of the actual painting. I am not certain of this, but the photo you posted looks flat to me, and the lighting is wrong. Also, Thiebaud adds more interesting colors in the frosting of the cakes. I'm looking at the photo of the painting: Thiebaud often uses bright or dark colors to define edges and I don't think any such colors appear in the header photo posted. In any case, you can quickly find other examples of the same painting on the internet, and if you look closely, you can see. There's a close up of that painting on the cover of the book for Thiebaud's retrospective in 2000.

Best regards,


Hi David,

Thanks for all of this! When I'm in Ontario I'm actually not that far from Albright Knox, I've gone to see their Rothkos (and had to deal with a very strange customs officer who asked me why I was going there. I said 'To look at the paintings' and he took that as snark!). I've never been to San Francisco, and now there's even more reason to make sure I get down there one day. I just took a look at Faggianato and they actually do archive past exhibits, but of course they didn't included the work you mentioned!

I replaced Cake, thanks for pointing that out. I came across a couple of those photographic reproductions you mentioned. Kind of neat but kind of just wrong at the same time! The lighting just can't be reproduced with any accuracy, and that is one of the most intriguing aspects of Thiebaud's paintings, I think. (Along with his colours and the textural way he applies the paint, of course!)

Thanks again, David!

All the best,

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