The first gallery in 70 Years of Painting—an anteroom if you like, and a microcosm of the entire exhibit—is enough to provide a sense of the breadth and power of Thiebaud’s painting, both in his subject matter and his skill as a painter. While there are plenty of food paintings in this first room, two large landscapes that flank the entrance to the main gallery dominate. River Lake and Green River Lands—ambitious works painted 10 years apart—appear to depict the same locale. Mirroring the complexity of his cityscapes, in which Thiebaud invents precipitous placement of buildings and improbably steep hills, both paintings discard Cartesian perspective, bending space, Cezanne-like, to suit his compositional aims. These paintings create a kind of flowing cubism with a very contemporary stamp, employing subtly broken symmetry, flattened perspective and simultaneous points of view.
Also in this first gallery, Hill River, sweetly elegiac and carefully composed, this compact painting demonstrates Thiebaud’s ability to scale his work. Small, and every bit as compelling as River Lake and Green River Lands, Thiebaud captures this landscape at dusk in the winter months, several moments before the sky turns inky blue. A lavender swath of water—reflecting the darkening sky—diagonally snakes across the panel from top left to bottom right. The river’s banks, painted in pinks and greens, and a hill, whose shadow has turned midnight blue, increase the color complexity of the painting. Defiant of gravity, a house sits on the side of the magnificent, steep hill above the river, catching the last rays of the sun and casting a characteristic Thiebaud shadow.
Thiebaud’s work is sometimes associated with Pop Art, and in this exhibit, there are observable affinities between the two. But Thiebaud is much more interested in the formal aspects of painting—color, form, shape, texture and composition—than his Pop Art peers. Thiebaud fills fields of dense color with luxurious brush stokes, as if he never wants you to forget the presence of his implements (Can you imagine James Rosenquist painting like this—brushwork impregnated by abstract expressionism?).
If Thiebaud’s landscapes involve fantastically inventive spatial relationships, vertiginous hills, mouth-watering color harmonies and curvaceous forms, Thiebaud paints people to appear stilted, mannequin-like, caught in the painter’s hands. In contrast with the sensuous texture of the paint, people sit or stand stiffly in Thiebaud’s paintings. There are exceptions. In Thiebaud’s small portrait of his wife, Betty Jean, where the subject is memory as much as it is Betty Jean, the atmosphere feels wistful and the brushwork is loose. In Majorettes, painted in 1962, Thiebaud defines figures and volumes as much with the direction of his interlocking brushstrokes as with the colors he chose.
The paintings created after 2000 are increasingly dreamlike, and Green River Lands, painted in 1998, seems related in atmosphere. Beach Boys, a painting from 1959, arguably before Thiebaud reached his signature painting style, appears to be a mature work. It is more sophisticated and accomplished than some of the earlier paintings from the 1950s, and it is unbelievably gorgeous. The surface is a melee of crossing brushstrokes. One can discern, especially from 12 to 15 feet away, the image of two boys at the beach. The three-foot view is breathtaking.
In the work dating from 2000 forward, in which Thiebaud discards some of the structures that characterize a major portion of his painting, he has created more open compositions and engaged the roiling, seething paint surface that he created in Beach Boys. Thiebaud tends to stand even further back as an observer in his new work; he watches the people in these paintings as an outsider. In the most successful of these new paintings, which invoke imagination and memory, Thiebaud also imposes structure—a loose grid of figures, the shadows on the sand tying them together.
Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, (760) 322-4800; http://www.psmuseum.org, thru May 17.