Wayne Thiebaud, famous pop art painter, dies at 101

Wayne Thiebaud at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in 2016. Photo: Grégory Urquiaga

Wayne Thiebaud, internationally known as the dean of West Coast figurative painters and also the originator of Pop art, died Saturday, December 25 in Sacramento, his primary residence since the 1950s. He was 101 years old.

His death was confirmed by his gallery, Acquavella.

“Even at 101, he spent most of his days in the studio, driven by, as he described it with his characteristic humility, ‘that almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint,'” the gallery’s statement reads. .

Critics have credited Thiebaud (pronounced “Tee-bo”), among other things, with the origin of Pop art and the extension of the lineage of Bay Area Figuration, the iconic style of the region.

“We have lost a legendary artist and a very close, kind and generous friend with the passing of Wayne Thiebaud,” Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, told The Chronicle. “Wayne has held a beloved place in our hearts and in our galleries for so long. He will be sadly missed by all of us. “

Thiebaud’s high-end paintings depicting food products, deli and bakery display cases, and ordinary items such as shoes and lipsticks became icons of late-20th-century American mass thirst for the fun and optimism. He just saw himself as a sort of chronicler of everyday things.

“Of course you are thankful when someone calls you something,” he once said. “But I never felt really involved. I have to say that I never really liked Pop art much.

“Untitled (cupcakes), 1999” by Wayne Thiebaud Photo: Berggruen Gallery

Instead, Thiebaud saw himself as belonging to longer, more cosmopolitan artistic traditions that placed little emphasis on stylistic labels or divisions between fine art and functional art. Illustrator and animator by training, he has an artisanal vision of pictorial creation and likes to reserve the term “art” only for the happiest performances of a practice essentially oriented towards the task: to paint a portrait, to describe an object, to stage , real or imaginary.

“I want to be able to paint anything I want at any time, the way I want to paint it,” he told The Chronicle in 2018. “I don’t want to develop a product or an image . “

Thiebaud’s most widely viewed work included cover illustrations for the New Yorker and a 1994 drawing for a California license plate that implicitly identifies a car owner as a cultural insider.

But the fantastical landscapes of his mid-to-late career, inspired by San Francisco’s most hilly streets or by the patchwork of crisscrossed fields and meandering rivers of the Central Valley, play with perspective and allusive surface designs of San Francisco. ‘a way fully appreciated only by viewers familiar with modern art history.

Wayne Thiebaud saw the streets of San Francisco like no one else

The Street and the Shadow by Wayne Thiebaud, 1982-1983 (1996). Photo: Thiebaud, Wayne / Crocker Art Museum

“Streetscapes are among Thiebaud’s most abstract works,” said Charles Desmarais, retired visual art critic of Chronicle. “Looking at them gives us a better idea of ​​how his brain works and his understanding of form. This helps us to understand his most popular works like cakes and pies. “

In 2001, the San Francisco Art Museums organized “Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective,” which traveled to museums in Texas, New York and Washington. DC The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized a career survey in 1985, and the Palm Springs Art Museum and San Jose Art Museum collaborated on another in 2009 and 2010.

Also in 2010, the Museo Morandi in Bologna, Italy, organized an exhibition, which later traveled to Vienna, which put Thiebaud’s still lifes alongside those of one of his artistic heroes, the painter and engraver Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), whom he never met, but of whom he owned several works.

For his 100th anniversary last year, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and the Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco marked time with major exhibitions showcasing his work.

Of course, Wayne Thiebaud plans to paint for his 100th birthday

Meet Wayne Thiebaud as the painter celebrates his 100th birthday

Thiebaud curated paintings for the SFMOMA collection in September 2018. Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2018

Thiebaud specialist and friend John Berggruen, who learned of Thiebaud’s passing on Sunday, December 26, while on vacation in Hawaii, said that “apart from his extraordinary talent and vision, he was perhaps the most gracious, charming, eloquent and inspiring personality. that I have never known.

Berggruen had shown Thiebaud’s work shortly after the John Berggruen Gallery opened in Union Square in 1970, one of the first of eight or nine solo exhibitions that consumed the entire gallery, he said.

“Every time we have presented a Thiebaud exhibit, there has been an enthusiastic response from customers, supporters and curators,” said Berggruen. “His work appealed to a lot of sensibilities. He had a very positive outlook on mundane and mundane matters, like pies and cakes. But beyond that, his sensitivity to the Californian landscape.

Over the past decade, the prices of Thiebaud’s large paintings, at auction and even in gallery exhibitions, have passed the seven-figure mark. A prolific printmaker who worked frequently with the Crown Point Press in San Francisco, Thiebaud has also produced relatively affordable works in editions for decades.

Born Morton Wayne Thiebaud in Mesa, Arizona on November 15, 1920, Thiebaud grew up in Long Beach and Utah, where his father, an engineer and inventor, had moved the family during the Depression to engage in farming.

Thiebaud began drawing as a teenager while recovering from a crippling sports injury. While still attending Long Beach High School, he took commercial art classes and worked summers as an apprentice animator at Walt Disney Studios.

Military service during World War II interrupted the formal education Thiebaud had started at Long Beach Junior College (now Long Beach City College). From 1941 to 1945, he served in northern and southern California on military projects that used his graphic arts skills.

“I became an aircraft mechanic while waiting for pilot training. In the meantime, I found some guys who worked in cartoons and creating posters. I was amazed that such a thing exists in the service, ”he told The Chronicle in 2018.

Betty Jean Thiebaud and her husband Wayne Thiebaud Photo: Ray “Scotty” Morris / Special for The Chronicle

In 1943, he married Patricia Patterson, his first wife. They had two daughters, Twinka and Mallary Ann.

After divorcing Patterson in 1959, Thiebaud married Betty Jean Carr and helped raise her sons, Matthew and Mark Bult. The couple’s own son, Paul Thiebaud, who died of cancer at age 49 in 2010, created galleries in his name in San Francisco and New York that represented his father’s work. The family continues to operate the San Francisco site.

After periods of study at San Jose State College (now University) and California State College (now University) in Sacramento, Thiebaud began his own long and distinguished teaching career at Sacramento Junior (now City) College, while completing his Masters in Fine Arts. the.

He was also a longtime professor at UC Davis. He officially retired in 1991, but continued to teach one class per year.

“Teaching at university has become my education,” he said at the age of 98.

After a leave spent in Manhattan which put him in contact with the great painters and critics of the New York School, Thiebaud experienced his great career break in 1962, with a New York solo exhibition at the Allan Stone Gallery, an association successful it would continue until Stone’s death in 2006.

Thiebaud at SFMOMA in September 2018. Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2018

Thiebaud has won numerous awards in recognition of his work as an artist and educator. These included election to the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters, the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award, and the National Medal of the Arts. He has received honorary doctorates from Dickinson College, the San Francisco Art Institute, the Art Institute of Southern California, and California State University Sacramento.

Thiebaud is survived by his daughters, Twinka Thiebaud and Mallary Ann Thiebaud, from his first marriage; son, Matt Bult, from his second marriage; and six grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

  • Sam Whiting and Kenneth Baker

    Sam Whiting and Kenneth Baker

    Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Kenneth Baker, who died this year, was a former visual art critic at The Chronicle.

James C. Tibbs