Wayne Thiebaud

“If the world were a perfect place,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times in 2001, “the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective that has just opened at the Whitney Museum would be nailed to the walls for good and we would be free to stop by whenever we needed to remind ourselves what happiness feels like.” David Littlejohn reviewed the same show in the Wall Street Journal when it appeared in San Francisco at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, which organized it in 2000. He praised “Mr. Thiebaud’s way with light and shadow, his radiant rainbow outlines, his dance of brushstrokes, the rich white grounds on which he paints voluptuous colors and the rigidly controlled austerity of his compositions.”

Thiebaud was born in 1920 in Mesa, Arizona, and resides in California, in Sacramento and San Francisco. As a child, he lived in Long Beach, California, and in Hurricane, Utah, where his family’s farm failed during the Depression. The family moved back to Long Beach in 1933, and Thiebaud worked in his youth as a sign painter and as an “in-betweener” in the animation department of Walt Disney studios. He studied commercial art in a trade school, attended Long Beach Junior College, and worked as a shipfitter in the Long Beach harbor. In the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, stationed in California, he drew a cartoon strip for the base newspaper. After leaving the service, he worked as a designer and cartoonist at the Rexall Drug Company in Los Angeles, where a fellow employee was painter Robert Mallary, who encouraged him to begin painting. Studying under the GI Bill, Thiebaud received a BA and an MA from California State College (now California State University) in Sacramento. His first one-person exhibition was in 1951 at the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery (now the Crocker Art Museum) in Sacramento.

Thiebaud began teaching at Sacramento Junior College in 1951, and he has been a teacher ever since, working as a visiting professor in schools around the country from Colorado University to Harvard University and Yale University. At the same time he sustained a teaching commitment to the University of California at Davis begun in 1960. (He nominally retired in 1990.) He lived for a year in New York City in 1956–57, became friendly with Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and met other abstract expressionist artists.

His first exhibition in New York, at the Alan Stone Gallery in 1962, received tremendous critical attention, with reviews in Newsweek, Art News, the New York Times, and Life magazine. That same year he had a one-person exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Thiebaud began making etchings at Crown Point Press in 1964. His first prints date from 1950, and he has been an active printmaker throughout his career. He has shown in numerous exhibitions and received many awards, including the National Medal of Arts presented by President Clinton in 1994. His paintings are in the collections of most major museums in the United States including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. He is represented by the Alan Stone Gallery, New York, and the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco.

  • Kathan Brown

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