Wayne Morton Thiebaud Biography

Wayne Morton Thiebaud




Wayne Morton Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona on November 15, 1920. His parents moved to Long Beach, California when he was only six years old. He would spend most of his youth in Southern California, but his large Mormon family had deep roots in the desert Southwest, and the young Wayne Thiebaud also spent a number of years living on an uncle's ranch in Utah. His early enthusiasm for comic strips and illustration led to an interest in serious art. Although he showed a precocious talent for drawing, fine art training -- or even a college education -- seemed like remote possibilities in the depressed economy of the 1930s. One summer between terms in high school, a teenage Thiebaud found work at Walt Disney Studios as an "in-betweener," laboriously drawing the thousands of individual frames that gave the illusion of movement to animated characters. The following summer, he enrolled in the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles with the intention of learning sign painting. Experienced commercial artists in the school encouraged him to study illustration, and he set himself to learning the skills of a commercial artist.

Thiebaud’s budding career as a cartoonist and  graphic designer was interrupted by World War II. From 1942 to 1945, Thiebaud served in the U.S. Army Air Force, where his skills as an artist kept him out of combat. During the war, he met and married Patricia Patterson. Their first child, Twinka, was born in 1945. A second daughter, Mallary Ann, was born in 1951.

After the war, Wayne Thiebaud resumed his career as a commercial artist, working for the Rexall drugstore chain, among others. At Rexall he met a fellow commercial artist, Robert Mallary, who was also an aspiring fine artist. Mallary encouraged Thiebaud to study fine art, and to broaden his education generally. Nearing 30 years of age, Thiebaud enrolled in the California State University system, first at San Jose and then at Sacramento, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees. Thiebaud had set himself a new goal, to support his family by teaching while pursuing a career as a fine artist. He found work at Sacramento City College, where he worked throughout the 1950s.

Thiebaud spent a sabbatical year in New York City, where he made the acquaintance of the leading American painters of the day. Among these were the abstract expressionists Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline, as well as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, two painters whose work would later be identified as cornerstones of the pop art movement. At this time, Thiebaud found a way to apply the formidable technical skills he had acquired during his years as a commercial artist to a new and unique subject matter. He began to paint small canvasses depicting brightly colored food products -- pies, cakes, candy and ice cream cones -- displayed as in shop windows, meticulously rendered with multi-hued outlines and the hyper-realistic shadows characteristic of commercial art. While conventional still lives are painted with the artist observing real objects as he paints, Thiebaud drew his pictures of food entirely from memory and imagination, a practice that contributed to the dreamlike intensity of his vision. There were no galleries to speak of in Colorado so Thiebaud exhibited wherever he could, in shops and restaurants, even in the concession booth of a drive-in theater. Impressed with the artists' cooperatives he had observed in New York, he founded a cooperative gallery in Sacramento, now known as Artists Contemporary Gallery, and an artists' retreat known as the Pond Farm in Sonoma County, owned by ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain.

In 1958, Thiebaud and his wife Patricia divorced. Their daughter Twinka became a celebrated artist's model, author and painter in her own right. Wayne Thiebaud later married filmmaker Betty Jean Carr, and adopted her son Matthew, who also became an artist. The couple had a second son, Paul, who became a noted art dealer and gallerist.

Thiebaud’s work was making an impression on his colleagues but had not yet found a general audience. This began to change in 1961, when he met the New York art dealer Allan Stone. Stone was initially indifferent to the slides he saw of Thiebaud's food paintings, but when the artist contacted him again a year later, Stone remembered them vividly and agreed to represent him. Stone became his exclusive dealer and a close personal friend. His first showings at Allan Stone Gallery resulted in major sales. In addition to showings at Stone's gallery, Thiebaud's work was featured in two historic group shows in 1962. The Pasadena Art Museum's "New Painting of Common Objects" is regarded as the first exhibition of pop art in America. Thiebaud's paintings were included alongside the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine and Andy Warhol -- an artist with whom Thiebaud felt little affinity -- but the exhibition attracted national attention and made Wayne Thiebaud a major name in the art world. Later that same year, the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York presented an "International Exhibition of the New Realists," which again grouped Thiebaud with Warhol and Lichtenstein, as well as James Rosenquist. Coming on the heels of the Pasadena exhibit, the show at Sidney Janis made pop art the dominant visual style of the '60s.

Thiebaud never embraced the concept of pop art, often characterized as a parody or critique of commercialism and consumer society. Thiebaud preferred to describe himself as a traditional painter of illusionistic form, and regarded the craftsmanship of advertising, cartoons and commercial illustration with respect and affection. He also distinguished himself among his contemporaries through his exacting craftsmanship and his uncompromising dedication to his own vision, without regard for changing fashions or trends in the art world.

As other artists adopted the now accepted pop art motifs, Thiebaud turned increasingly to the representation of the human figure, rendered in meticulous detail, but with a dispassionate sense of weight and solidity that freed the painted figure from any implication of sentimentality or superficial appeal. In the mid-'60s, Thiebaud also took up printmaking, a practice he has pursued alongside his painting ever since. In the 1970s he carried on with his examination of everyday objects, including shoes and cosmetics, while painting his first major landscapes, dizzying street scenes inspired by the vertiginous topography of San Francisco. He continued his landscape series for the next 20 years, finding haunting beauty in apparently commonplace scenes, rendered with hyper-realistic detail.

He has received numerous honors for his work, most notably the National Medal of Arts, presented to him by President William J. Clinton in a 1994 ceremony at the White House. A 2001 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in New York won enthusiastic acclaim. After the death of Allan Stone in 2006, Thiebaud was represented by his son, art dealer Paul Thiebaud, until Paul's death in 2009. Although Wayne Thiebaud retired from teaching, his decades of mentoring younger artists has had a major influence on American art. Many of his students have enjoyed distinguished artistic careers, not the least of whom was the late Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). In his 100th year, Wayne Thiebaud was still painting. His vast body of work continues to inspire and delight viewers with its unique vision of the charm and beauty of everyday things.

Wayne Morton Thiebaud died on Christmas Day, December 25, 2021 at age 101.

Biography from Academy of Achievment: http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/thi0bio-1