Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Modern American Printmaking @ DIA

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Installation image, Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking, at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking brings together over 75 works of art, from multiple collections, to celebrate and emphasize Blackburn’s unrelenting dedication to a collaborative artistic community and the accessibility of art making to all. The exhibition chronicles Blackburn’s life through visuals and text. Placards strategically placed throughout the exhibit offer breaks between the works and section the pieces based on relevant themes. They also provide visitors a storyline through the exhibit, rather than overwhelming them with a large haphazard grouping of works. At the onset, viewers learn about Blackburn’s beginnings. He was born the child of Jamaican immigrants in Harlem, New York just as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning. New York was also still experiencing the transitional period of the Great Migration, which together brought an influx of Black people who relocated to New York from many other areas of the country.

African American artist Charles Alston was part of the movement to New York from the south.  He played a crucial role in educating Blackburn as a teen and encouraging his interest in art and activism. Similar to Alston, a number of other artists played a role in Blackburn’s artistic development and he, in turn, maintained those values and continually aided other artists throughout the remainder of his life. Blackburn’s establishment of The Printmaking Workshop in 1947 changed the trajectory of many artists’ lives by creating a community and offering a space for artists of various skill levels to learn from each other, experiment, and perfect their technique.

Charles Alston, Young Boy, Charcoal, 1937

The exhibition ebbs and flows through multiple spaces, leading the viewer through a journey and introducing new artists and artistic techniques with every turn. Within the first gallery space is a very distinct 1949 Charles White lithograph, “John Brown”. True to his aesthetic and the conceptual nature of many of his lithographs, the rendering of the solo figure in the work depicts White’s graphic style, brilliant use of light and shadow, and poignant subject matter. John Brown was an American abolitionist leader from the nineteenth century who dedicated his life to ending slavery. Brown’s legacy is two-fold. Within many Black and abolitionist communities, he is thought of as a martyr because of his participation in the assault on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he sacrificed his life. However, he is often criticized as well because of his use of violence within his abolitionist tactics. White’s piece was printed by Blackburn and honors Brown by including the seriousness, determination, and visionary nature that’s applauded as part of his legacy. White and Blackburn maintained a relationship as friends throughout their careers and Blackburn printed many of White’s works.

Charles White, John Brown, Lithograph, 1949

A great majority of the works in the exhibition were printed on paper through linocut, woodcut, and lithograph processes, yet Faith Ringgold’s 1984 “Death of Apartheid #2” was made by intaglio printing with a relief roll on canvas. From the beginning of her career, Ringgold  addressed social issues, often centering on overt and underlying racism. The abstraction in this work makes it particularly interesting because Ringgold’s most well-known works are predominantly figurative. The print also stands out visually because of the simplicity of the curvilinear aspects, the red color choice, and the layering technique used. Nonetheless, the commonality of interests in activism throughout the developed printmaking community was pronounced within many of the artists’ work, including Blackburn’s.

Faith Ringgold, Death of Apartheid #2, Intaglio with relief roll on canvas, 1984

Although small in scale, one work that is prominent within the context of the exhibition is Blackburn’s “Refugees (aka People in a Boat)”. Blackburn printed the work during his late teen years, already displaying his craftsmanship and interest in commentary around complex social issues. The work portrays a group of individuals in a small boat navigating calm water, yet it is subject to multiple interpretive possibilities. The ripples surrounding the paddle boat hint at movement and the simplified landscape offers information regarding the distance between the group and the shore. Their previous location and destination are left as mysteries to the viewer.  Blackburn gives visitors an idea of subject matter and social relevance with the title, leaving the context and more conceptual understandings in the hands of the audience.

Robert Blackburn, Refugees (aka People in a Boat), Lithograph, 1938

Just ten years later, Blackburn’s work experienced a shift to more abstracted forms, which remained a focus throughout the rest of his career. With his friend and teacher, Ronald Joseph, Blackburn began creating vibrant, abstract gouache paintings based on still lifes consisting of everyday objects. As he continued, Blackburn’s works became more abstracted. Many Black artists made a similar decision around the same time, contradicting the expectation of Black artists to concentrate their work solely on addressing social and cultural issues. Joseph and Blackburn instead experimented with the power and visual language of shape, color, and line.

Robert Blackburn, Blue Things, Color Woodcut, 1963-1970

Mildred Thompson’s “The Third Mystery” is installed with no additional descriptive text. Assumptions can be made regarding Thompson’s intention and the meaning of the work, yet what’s most important is always the work itself. What makes the piece stunning and arresting is the centralized grayscale merging within abstracted forms, penetrated from multiple directions and entry points by Thompson’s signature linework.

Mildred Thompson, The Third Mystery, Intaglio, 1990

In keeping with the tradition of Blackburn’s desire to teach and make the process of creating accessible to all, brief definitions, descriptions, and examples of artistic techniques are included in the exhibition. Two small adjacent gallery spaces in the center of the exhibition examine woodcuts and etchings. The two separate spaces showcase works by members of Blackburn’s artists’ community as examples of each process.

Ed Clark, Yucatán Series, Etching, 1977

The exhibition culminates with a color lithograph bookending the show. It highlights the most significant aspect and the connecting thread of the exhibit, Robert Blackburn himself. The image of Blackburn printing from a lithographic stone was created by African American Detroit-born artist Ron Adams the year before Blackburn’s death. After Blackburn’s life of transforming the printmaking realm, investing in the careers of some of the most well-known artists of the last century, and ultimately proving the importance of artistic communities, Adams’s print is a perfect tribute, honoring Blackburn at the end of his life.

Ron Adams, Blackburn, color lithograph on tan paper, 2002

Of course, the exhibition features multiple incredibly brilliant works by Blackburn. Along with his innovation as a printmaker, an overarching theme of the exhibition is his unwavering dedication to the many artists who impacted his life and the lasting printmaking community they became. He wasn’t satisfied with receiving opportunities to create artwork for himself. He wanted printmaking to be available to all artists, at any skill level, and that’s exactly what he created through The Printmaking Workshop over seventy years ago

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and curated by Deborah Cullen. It will remain on view at the DIA through Sunday, September 5, 2021.

Seeds of Resistance @ MSU Broad

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Within the Arctic Svalbard Archipelago on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen is a structure known colloquially as the “Doomsday Vault.” Here, buried deep within a mountain and preserved in sub-zero temperatures are thousands of boxes from all over the world containing roughly a million airtight seed packets.  The vault exists to preserve Earth’s biodiversity, acting as a safety net mitigating the environmental effects of any potential natural or human-made ecological disaster. It’s also a sort of United Nations; here you’ll find boxes of seeds deposited by both the United States and North Korea (and they’re quite literally on the same shelf, no less).  The Doomsday Vault is just one of many seed vaults and libraries catalogued in Dornith Doherty’s photographic series Archiving Eden: The Vaults, a body of work which documents our best efforts at ecological preservation. At Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, her work currently joins that of many other artists who collectively speak to the need for humanity to actively preserve Earth’s biodiversity.

Seeds of Resistance compellingly equates the preservation of seeds with the preservation of genetic information, cultural heritage, and cultural knowledge.  The show brings together a diverse body of work by international artists and educators who collectively assert the importance of biodiversity, and reflect on the human imprint on the environment, for better or for ill.  The show also celebrates the legacy of MSU’s own Dr. William Beal (1833-1924), the founder of the school’s W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, and whose Seed Viability Experiment remains the longest running scientific experiment in modern history.

Several prominent works on view emphasize the presence of healthy, living soil as integral to any vibrant ecosystem.  A large multimedia ensemble by Claire Pentecost invites us to consider the value of healthy soil by drawing a parallel between soil and currency.  Here, she stacks blocks of soil sculpted to resemble gold ingots; these are accompanied by twenty-six paintings arranged into a sort of triptych.  They collectively represent a hypothetical currency which Pentecost calls the soil-erg, a counterpart to the petro-dollar.  Using actual soil to render these images, each painting suggests a different type of imagined bank-note; some commemorate historic figures famous for their contributions to our understanding of agriculture, and others celebrate the non-human creatures that are an integral part of the soil-food web.  The earthworm and the bumblebee are championed along with Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau.

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

The works of Antonio Moreno and Dylan Miner also thoughtfully underscore the content of their art with the material they work with.  For his collective project Live the Free Fields, Moreno invited over fifty participants to fashion over 1,000 mushrooms out of clay (itself a type of soil), which here seem to be sprouting from the floor of the gallery space and together suggest the Earth’s many extant varieties of fungi.  Conversely, Dylan Miner speaks to the destruction of healthy ecosystems with a triptych showing a stretch of the Kalamazoo River, the sight of a massive oil spill in 2010.  To render the map-like painting, Miner applied bitumen, a type of crude oil, to give the painting its sludgy, oily appearance.

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

In an adjacent gallery space we find an ensemble of large photographic prints from Dornith Doherty’s Archiving Eden series.  Some of these unpeopled images come across as haunting and surreal.  Perhaps this is what we might expect, after all, of images documenting a place nicknamed “The Doomsday Vault” (though the place is more properly called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault).  Her series documents seed vaults and libraries all over the world though, and some of these libraries are actually very much alive, such as the apple tree collection at Cornell University in New York, which is an orchard preserving over 300 species of apple.  Fittingly, in this space her work is complemented with an actual library catalog, itself a conceptual work by Johannes Heldén and Håkan Jonson.  With the help of artificial intelligence, the artists filled the drawers of an old-style library catalog with 30,000 index cards, each describing some imaginary future species of creature made extinct by humans.  Inside this exhibition’s program/pamphlet, you’ll find several sample copies of these entries on 3×5 index cards (mine included an entry for “Megaptera citri,” described as a social, urban, nocturnal creature made extinct by humans in 2514 AD).

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Supplementing the art in this gallery space are several tables which display artifacts and ephemera that belonged to Dr. William Beal.  Here we learn about Beal’s Seed Viability Experiment; launched in 1879, the experiment is still going on today, and it assesses the duration of the seed’s ability to remain dormant and still be able to sprout. The content here is historic and informational rather than artistic, but Beal’s importance to agricultural botany and his significance to MSU aptly makes him a central part of this exhibition.

With Seeds of Resistance, the Broad continues its fine tradition of programming that connects the visual arts with the sciences and other disciplines, and this show in particular makes excellent use of the University’s strengths as an agricultural school. Furthermore, the topic of preserving Earth’s biodiversity is certainly relevant.  In 2015, after all, as the direct result of civil war, Syria became the first country that found it necessary to withdraw the seeds it had deposited into the Spitsbergen Norway Seed Vault. It very likely won’t be the last.

Seeds of Resistance is on view at the MSU Broad through July 18.

Roger Martin @ Image Works

A humbly titled show, Cass Corridor, at Image Works Gallery, one of Dearborn’s most interesting new exhibition venues, provides a rare look at ordinary daily life in the Cass Corridor in the 1970s. Michigan photographer Roger Martin’s first series as an emerging artist reveals the many shades of life in this diverse neighborhood. In search for chance encounters and unnoticed moments, a young, long haired Martin walked the streets of the Cass Corridor routinely, often several days a week, between 1969 and 1972. An impressive archive of about 10.000 street and interior shots accumulated over time, none of them dated or labelled.

Installation Image, Roger Martin, Cass Corridor, Image Works, 3.2021 – All images courtesy of Images Works, and the artist.

Bordering the campus of Wayne State University, where Martin was working on his B.A. in Photography at the time, was a depressed inner-city neighborhood bisected by Cass Avenue, now subsumed under Midtown and associated with Detroit’s most recent revival. The Cass Corridor, referred to by some historians astringently as a “planned slum,” held a mixed population of African Americans and Chinese, many of whom spilled over from the demolished Black Bottom and old Chinatown neighborhoods Downtown. Also, home to a considerable White community in low-income public housing, it was plagued by alcoholism, prostitution, and other ailments. Largely operating outside of the values of a postwar middle-class society, underground culture and lifestyle movements such as a thriving LGBTQ and experimental arts community emerged facilitated by a low rent environment, a rich bar culture, and proximity to cultural and educational institutions. The neighborhood made national news due to its burgeoning crime and drug culture dominated by heroin, cocaine, and crack. While housing was predominantly segregated by ethnicity, the streets provided a more open place for encounters, at least by degree.

Twenty carefully selected Archival Pigment prints in sizes of 12” x 6” and 7.5” x 9.5” have been newly scanned from negatives, digitally remastered, and printed by Chris Bennett, the owner and chief curator of Image Works Gallery. Bennett, a photographer and digital print professional who moved here from the West Coast in 2017, provides national programming dedicated primarily to photography in its many historical and contemporary facets. The vast majority of the photographs, selected by Bennett in close collaboration with Martin, had not seen the light of day before.

The photographs in the show are newly titled, mostly in a descriptive fashion, and hung to further enhance the visual drama that occurs inside the frame: a choreography of changing angles, bodily positions, single or multiple figure groupings, and alternating backgrounds provide the chosen sequence with a pleasantly strong sense of visual rhythm. Consequently, the images can be viewed in any order. But one image does stand out. Hung right below the exhibition title, Peterboro and Cass showcases Chinatown’s urban façade shot from street level with an obliquely receding pavement line that bifurcates the urban space into two unequal halves.

Roger Martin, Cass and Peterboro, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

Moving off the street toward the sidewalk, an African American woman dressed in black with a black hat and a black bag stands out markedly against two white parked cars in the foreground. The commercial signage further enhances the strength of this photographic play with visual contrast. Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine and Bow Wah Chop Suey in white on black clash with a black on white Pepsi logo above a Grocerland Market sign. One might be tempted to read into this the idea of a possible cultural confrontation(s). To take a case in point, the Chinese community was only afforded an opportunity to buy properties after a 1960s urban renewal effort moved their Downtown location around Third and Bagley Street up north toward Peterboro and Cass.

Shot in black and white with a 35 mm Leica, Martin’s handheld style seeks sharp focus and stability inside the frame quickly and intuitively. Perfect geometry, metered lighting, or perfect focus give way to an exciting spontaneity of alignment and a focus on people in acts of simply being and doing.

Roger Martin, Professor Pinkus, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

In Professor Pinkus, we confront a bearded old man with an oversized grey coat, a black woolen hat, and a long white cane with a silver tip, resembling a cane for a blind person, inside a coin laundry. He looks straight but furtively at the camera. Martin shoots from varying distances and angles at which the camera faces the subject, but always at eye level. As the photographer relays the story of Mr. Pinkus, and most images come with a story, he encountered this former Literature Professor several times over the years as he was frequently heard citing Shakespeare in public after succumbing to alcoholism.

The most successful of Martin’s images closely engage with the private aspects of public street life on sideways, in front of facades and door entries, and on porches. These liminal locations hold a special place of interest for the photographer as sites of transition between private and public.

Roger Martin, The Haircut, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

In The Haircut, five individuals in close physical proximity engage in activities ranging from a buzz cut to drinking and rolling cigarettes after a return from the drugstore. A candid approach to street photography operates as a clandestine practice, but Martin approaches his subjects casually, asking for permission to capture transitory moments in their everyday lives. The choice to react to the presence of the camera is entirely up to the individuals. This opens up an unpredictable range of human gestures and expressions that lends complex visual and emotional interest to many of these images. In Back Pocket, three man are stacked in space, receding gradually into the middle ground from the left foreground. This leads the eye to a man with his head and back turned away from us as he is attempting to drink from a white plastic cup and a bottle tucked into his right trouser pocket.

Roger Martin, Back Pocket, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

We cannot determine to what extent, if at all, these men are connected. And yet their presence in the same photographic frame implies that there was activity before the photographer took his shot.

These are not just simple documentary images that provide information and aesthetic reward through compositional intricacies, but they are open to a variety of complex meaning and emotions. Not unlike in the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom Martin recounts as a strong inspiration for this series, each image elicits a sense of curiosity or questioning as to the nature of the human interaction: between present and past, between protagonists, between photographer and photographed. This is the particular nature of the photographic event astutely highlighted by Martin’s photographic style. Bresson photographed daily life on the streets of Paris trying to capture what he famously called the decisive moment, a poignant or poetic moment that can pass quickly and enhances the meaning of the photograph. More specifically, the decisive moment in Martin’s images seems to call for the presence of at least two protagonists. The Two demonstrates just that.

Roger Martin, The Two, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

Two individuals with similar clothing, hair styles, and bodily demeanor, but of considerably different age, stand quietly to be photographed. Set against a tri-part, high contrast white and black backdrop, we are left wondering as to their gender identity. Cass Avenue was once home to the cities’ largest concentration of gay and transgender bars.

In Cass Corridor, Martin does not set out to document the pressures of society, industry, and poverty on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and class. And yet these images function as fault lines of social identity formation amidst social inequalities without turning the precarities of these lives into spectacles for the public eye. Dearborn-born Martin, who completed his M.A. in Photography at Wayne State in the mid-1970s, has since tried his professional hand at a variety of genres other than street photography, and we can look forward to seeing additional work in the future as he exhibits more locally.

Roger Martin, Cass Corridor,  Image Works,  Exhibition through April 30, 2021

 

 

Brian Rutenberg and Frank Fisher @ BBAC

Brian Rutenberg, painter, and Frank James Fisher, ceramicist, open the Spring Season of 2021 at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

As Michiganders crawl out of the winter and the Covid-19 pandemic (be it as slow as it is), we are greeted by the BBAC exhibitions that make it worth our time for a visit.  The main gallery features the ceramic work by Frank Fisher and Brian Rutenberg’s abstractions in the Robinson Gallery. “This is a must-see, exceptional exhibit,” said Annie VanGelderen, BBAC president and CEO. “Truly, all of our spring exhibiting artists are particularly wonderful in their own mediums.  Visitors will certainly leave inspired.”

Brian Rutenberg, Installation, 3.2021 All images courtesy of DAR

Sitting in the Robinson Gallery for a lengthy amount of time, I begin to acclimate to these large oil paintings by the nationally known artist from South Carolina, Brian Rutenberg.  The imagery gradually falls into place, something I would describe as abstract landscapes where there is an abundance of woodlands, horizons, skies, streams and rivers. Although he has spent his adult life, post-graduate school,  in New York City, these compositions are unique, inspired by the coastal Carolina landscape of his youth.  Those formative years must have made its mark on Rutenberg’s sensibility in terms of subject matter, as he brings this vibrant color scheme and the issue of scale to the forefront of the work.  If these paintings were all 20 x 30 inches, we would not be so affected. Still, Green River is a portal into the richness of heavily applied oil paint in a variety of ways and a color scheme that uses primary and secondary colors in a form that is individual to each painting.  There is a newness in how Rutenberg handles his forms, something that separates him from other abstract landscape painters, leaving us with a unique experience.

Brian Rutenberg, Green River, Oil on Linen, 63 x 160″

Brian Rutenberg, Detail Green River

Here is a detail from Green River (18 x 20 inches), where we see Rutenberg using a large variety of tools to spread paint: brushes, sticks, pallet knives and trowels. There is a color selection which repeats throughout the work that reflects on the subjects, a stream or vertical branch, and skies that reach out into a variety of pastel hues.

Brian Rutenbert, Corsair, Oil on Linen, 60 x 82",

The large 60 x 82 inch oil painting, Corsair, is another example of an abstract landscape where there is a horizon running horizontally with vertical lines like tree branches on the left and a blue stream on the right. The foreground dominates the composition with organic brown and foliage green.  The landscape may be subliminal, but it is clear to this viewer that Rutenberg’s abstract expressionism consistently repeats itself throughout the work. The Myrtle Beach-born painter is obsessed with the physicality of low hanging trees along South Carolina’s waterways, and continued to draw on those years long after moving to New York City.  When I refer to the term abstract expressionism, it would be similar to the female paintings by Willem de Kooning, where the figure is abstracted. Rutenberg does this in a unique way with his abstract landscapes.

Brian Rutenberg earned his undergraduate degree from the College of Charleston and his Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

 

Frank James Fisher Ceramics Draw on Everyday Imagery

Frank James Fisher, The Ol’ Yes No, Slab-built porcelain, Raku Fired, reduction

A native Michigander from Milford, Frank James Fisher, has what he calls Pop Artifacts on display in the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center’s main gallery.  These reasonably small works are mostly slab construction using porcelain clay and a Raku firing. Some of the parts to these ceramic pieces are thrown on a potter’s wheel, but most come from lumps of clay rolled out into slab constructions where he adds photo imagery to the surface.  The title Pop Artifacts comes from using commercial images like Starbucks and goes back to the 1970s when artists like Andy Warhol used images from Campbell soup cans and a Brillo pad logo to create their art.

Frank James Fisher, Starbanks, Slab-built porcelain, Raku Fired, reduction

He says in his statement, “Advertising has recalibrated my brain. Forty years of working in the marketing community has saturated and skewed my aesthetic away from traditional art expression. My mind prefers graphics, headlines, logos, body copy, photos, illustrations, taglines, and any other marketing tool to express my creative thoughts. These are the tools I use to build narratives and fabricate impossible consumer products out of clay. I call them Pop Artifacts. Sculpted, cast, pressed, or thrown, these ceramic objects represent the desires we chase in the hope of capturing satisfaction.

Frank James Fisher, Frank Oil Tea-can, Wheel thrown, hand-built porcelain, Raku- fired, reduction, metal & wood handle

Inspired by mineral spirit containers from years ago, Fisher’s Tea-cans have the retro-look of an older metal fabricated chamber that might resemble a favorite of many ceramicists, the Tea Pot. Using hand-cut stencils, he applies them to greenware by adding glaze to the bare surface in various steps and then relies on the Raku process to achieve his desired aged look.

Frank James Fisher earned his BFA in graphic design from Central Michigan University and worked in advertising for 25 years until 2006 and teaches advanced ceramics courses in the metro-Detroit area where he demonstrates his art methods at workshops.

Both exhibitions at the BBAC run through April 22, 2021

Wayne Thiebaud @ Toledo Museum of Art

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings @TMA

Wayne Thiebaud, Boston Cremes, 1962. Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 in. Crocker Art Museum Purchase, 1964.22. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

Prior to the Toledo Museum of Art’s exhibition Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings, all my knowledge of the artist came from a handful of images from 20th Century art history books, which mostly featured his paintings of slices of cake behind glass which, like the repetitive Campbell’s Soup cans of Andy Warhol, offered subtle commentary on postwar commercialism and mass-production. But here we’re exposed to the full breadth of his artistic career, which also encompassed still life painting, portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes, and more, and all in a broad array of media. While Thiebaud may have initially made his mark as a staple of Pop-art, this exhibition reveals that his work is surprisingly diverse and rooted in art-historical tradition, and that he had an uncanny ability to translate centuries-old genres into the artistic vocabulary of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud’s panoramic career has taken many trajectories, and it isn’t over yet.  When he was just sixteen, he took a job at Walt Disney Studios, working as an animator for Pinocchio and a variety of film shorts.  During the Second World War he joined the airforce intending to become a pilot, but was transferred to the Special Services Department where he worked as a map, mural, and poster designer.  After the war, he both studied and taught at Sacramento City College, and fell under the influence of the New York School of postwar abstract expressionists, such as Pollock, Kline, and DeKooning, whose gestural abstract style he  conscientiously began to quote in his own work, as in his very abstract painting The Sea Rolls In (on view in this exhibition). But Thiebaud ultimately  preferred representational art, and in his serialized paintings of frosting-rich plates of cake, he found a way to synthesize the gestural impasto of DeKooning with the illustrative nature of traditional still-life painting.

Filling the entirety of the TMA’s spacious Levis Gallery (and even spilling over into a large adjacent gallery) are chronologically arranged works which span the breadth of Thiebaud’s career, some on view for the first time.  Trucker’s Supper, a work in the TMA’s permanent collection, sets the tone of much of the subsequent work on view; a plate with a slab of roast beef and some french fries inhabits a stark-white indeterminate background space, all the paint rendered in rich imposto (an effect which mostly gets lost in translation when these works are reproduced in books or online).  Thiebaud was a figurative and illustrative artist, but if you step in close, you’ll see passages of brushwork that reveal his admiration for his abstract expressionist counterparts. While his paintings are certainly not hyperrealistic, in applying the paint so thickly some of his paintings of cakes become almost sculptural, and the paint mimics the texture of frosting with a surprising realism bordering on trompe l’oeil trickery.

Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974.12. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

After firmly (and perhaps unwittingly) establishing his reputation as the painter of cakes and pies, Thiebaud explored figure painting so as not to be defined by a single subject. Like his still lifes, his figures generally inhabit empty white spaces, recalling the portraits of Manet, who often placed his figures against grey, uninhabited space (as he did with his portrait of the French journalist Antonin Proust, a work in the TMA’s collection just a few galleries away).

Wayne Thiebaud, Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, 1965–1969. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1969.21. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Thiebaud was largely unsatisfied with his early attempts at portraiture, however, and in the 1960s he turned toward landscapes and cityscapes, genres he would continue to explore in subsequent decades.  But his treatment of the subject is joyously whimsical.  Thiebaud’s improbably vertical cityscapes and landscapes heave and buckle in a visual parody of the streets of San Francisco and the mountainous terrain surrounding the San Fernando Valley.  Some of these stylized landscapes feature parabola-shaped hills, and seem like playful, almost cartoon-like caricatures of the land (in the 1940s, Thiebaud indeed worked for a while as a cartoonist).

Wayne Thiebaud, Street and Shadow, 1982–1983/1996. Oil on linen, 35 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1996.3. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Park Place, 1995. Color etching hand-worked with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, and pastel, 29 9/16 x 20 3/4 in. (sheet/image). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.50. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

A generous selection of prints and drawings makes the point that Thiebaud was also a consummate draftsman.  He was interested in printmaking for the entirety of his career, and in Delights (a series of seventeen aquatints), Thiebaud applied the visual textures of hatching and cross-hatching to replicate in a different media the tactile textures we find in all his previous still lifes.  Featuring reductive, scribbled-in  illustrations of cakes, pies, and ice-cream cones, these small prints have the stylized polish we might expect of a New Yorker cartoon (a publication for which Thiebaud illustrated many covers, and subscribers to the magazine will have recently seen his painting Double Scoop grace the August 17, 2020 issue).

Wayne Thiebaud, Dark Chocolates, n.d. Etching hand-worked with colored pencil, 8 7/8 x 10 1/4 in. (plate), 14 3/8 x 15 1/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.36. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cake Window, from Delights series, 1964. Etching, 4 15/16 x 5 7/8 in. (plate), 12 3/4 x 10 3/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.1.13. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The show concludes in an adjacent gallery space which showcases some of his recent work, which is largely a continued exploration of earlier themes and genres.  But here we also find an ensemble of paintings that feature clowns, a new subject in his work.  Stylistically, these subtly parallel his paintings of cake and pies, and much as Thiebaud used paint to replicate the thick frosting on a cake, here it replicates impastoed clown makeup.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is a diverse and sprawling exhibition, which is exactly the sort of retrospective the artist deserves given the breadth and depth of his oeuvre.  While Thiebaud developed a distinctly recognizable style of his own, he was never bound to a specific theme or genre, and this exhibition triumphantly gives the lie to any notion that Thiebaud was simply the Pop-era painter of cakes and pies.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is on view at the TMA until May 2, 2021

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