Good Tastes: Wayne Thiebaud

“Pie Counter,” 1963.

“Commonplace objects are constantly changing… The pies, for example, we now see, are not going to be around forever. We are merely used to the idea that things do not change.” —Wayne Thiebaud

When teaching at University of California Davis in the 1960s, Wayne Thiebaud asked his students to take note— “on where to buy the best and cheapest salami, cheese, coffee, fruit, bread, cakes, and wine, things he insisted would significantly enrich the quality of our lives,” his former student Jock Reynolds told the New York Times back in 2010.

Thiebaud wasn’t suggesting groceries, but listing his own sources of inspiration—the cakes, pies, candies, and “trays of herring and sardines” that he rendered into “the most tactile and sensuous visual compositions imaginable.”

Wayne Thiebaud’s famous food still lifes—factory-made pies and cakes, gumball machines, ice cream cones and floats, hot dogs—capture an American diet suspended in nostalgia. The pies, we now see, are not going to be around forever. In muted tones, the flavors have already begun to fade. The foods are often processed and always symmetrical: a row of hot dogs on an ambiguous plane, cakes of varying heights. Each item is aestheticized, insatiable, made for display.

“Five Hot Dogs,” 1961.

Though often misidentified as part of the Pop movement—he exhibited alongside Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha in the 1962 Pop Art show “New Paintings of Common Objects”—Thiebaud’s first still lifes actually predate Pop Art and he dislikes the comparison. Warhol was “flat” and “mechanical”, the opposite of Thiebaud’s work, in which commonplace items aren’t satirized but made lush, with paint strokes as thick as icing and colors so sugary you can almost taste. Each slice, scoop, and filling is an exercise in depth. Shadows play off light; the glow from bakeshop windows always cool and detached.

“Tulip Sundaes,” 2010.

Thiebaud also paints landscapes and portraits, but is best known for his desserts and continues to paint them today. He has contributed several New Yorker covers and has also painted a cake for Google’s 12th birthday. Resisting explications on the symbolism of his visual confections, Thiebaud nonetheless attributes them to childhood memories as sweet as his subjects:

“Most of [the paintings] are fragments of actual experience. For instance, I would really think of the bakery counter, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience. From when I worked in restaurants, I can remember seeing rows of pies, or a tin of pie with one piece out of it and one pie sitting beside it. Those little vedute in fragmented circumstances were always poetic to me.”

He never paints from a physical reference.