Wayne Theibaud, Part Three

I interviewed Wayne Thiebaud on March 16, 2009, at the LaBaron’s Fine Art Gallery, in Sacramento, California. It was a drizzly morning but the gallery’s tall white walls and sky lights created an airy atmosphere. Our 60-minute interview easily flowed into 90-minutes without either one of us noticing. Personally, I could have stayed there all day soaking in every word this brilliant artist had to offer.

RF: Let’s talk about photos. I think this is my own personal bias, but I see work that is clearly just a copy of a photograph and I don’t see the artist pushing himself or trying to do anything else with it. It’s a crutch.

…a painting which exists of its own structure depends on stereoscopic awareness of space, fictional depth, or the lack of it, or the combination – flat round, two-dimensional, three-dimensional.

WT: Well, you think, ‘What’s our responsibility?’ First of all, to define the difference between a photograph and a painting: It seems obvious maybe, but they look alike but that’s as far as it goes. Photography takes the world all together as a source and you are, in a sense, taking everything and bringing it down to something – focusing are a limited section, but you start with everything and you make something from that everything. Painting starts with nothing, zero, absolute blank and has to get something. You can get something a lot of different ways, but a painting which exists of its own structure depends on stereoscopic awareness of space, fictional depth, or the lack of it, or the combination – flat round, two-dimensional, three-dimensional. Photography cannot do that. Photography also cannot introduce into its program the thing we talked about called empathy. The muscularity is not there. So, that is an enormous difference. Learning to draw and to lie is not natural. Painting is an unnatural act. Photography is a natural phenomenon – very important, very rich tradition so far. But also it’s limited in a way in which painting is not limited. With painting you can do absolutely nothing and have a painting. With a minimal amount of marking or issuance or some people even say just the framework, that’s a work of art. That’s the immense prerogative of painting, it’s astounding. Or the most ridiculous kind of sublime effect: the Sistine Chapel.

And that’s painting; from nothing to everything. In the sense, if you’re willing to say, it’s a world of its own. So if you are trying to mix the two together, it’s probably okay if you’re Degas, who used photographs, but, how deeply he was trained first to be able to use those options. If you start copying photographs, you’re going to always be on this flat surface, and it’s so easy and so instantaneously available to tell when something is photographically based. You can’t lie about it, you can’t cheat. Yep, photograph…yep, photograph. (He waves his hand dismissively.)

RF: Do you have a photographic memory?

WT: No.

RF: You don’t?

WT: I just spend a lot of time drawing from objects and people and things and then that, like reading a visual dictionary, say, you develop tools. And my paintings are all done from memory of a certain area and from observation, but never from photographs. So, memory to me is a very important adjunct as it was…I mean Degas talks a great deal about memory and most artists do even though you look at there work, [and think] Caravaggio worked from memory? He worked from observation and from memory, and so did Michelangelo. They knew enough about anatomy so they could conjure up the figure. Goya could draw figures in every place and in any clothing because he observed for so long, then he was able to set up a stage and make a painting, put people where he wanted them, doing what he wanted them to do, and like Cecil B DeMillle, created a motion picture.

RF: So memory is something that you really have to train in your own self.

WT: Oh, absolutely. There may be people who have photographic memories, I don’t know. I don’t have a photographic memory.

RF: So, I did ask a number of artists, “If you had the chance to sit opposite Wayne. Thiebaud, what would you say? Everybody did ask, and we talked about this before, who are your influences? Outside of painting, who would you say are your influences, musicians and writers?

WT: Very much so. I love music. I’m not a musician – I play bad guitar, that’s about it, harmonica, but I listen to music.

RF: Do you listen to music while you paint?

I’m very interested in poetry and think there is maybe a closer relationship to poetry and painting than people think.

WT: Sometimes. I listen to lectures sometimes, books on tape. I’m very interested in poetry and think there is maybe a closer relationship to poetry and painting than people think. Someone once described, if you want to understand literature, poetry is the way to do it. They call it an x-ray of literature in the sense that you see in and around and through in ways that are not readily available and visual. And painting is like that, I think. I think painting also has to define itself in terms of its ability to see things that people have not seen. That I think is crucial. The other thing besides that is the idea of sports. As we described that’s also part of a system of totally immersing yourself in a rich tradition of all those things you can. I try to get my students to read and do some critical writing of other people’s works. I think that’s always a help to begin to write your own reviews so you get set up against what criticism is. There is ideological criticism and formalist criticism; you better understand both of those and the differences, because it’s crucial to know what someone’s critical premise is when they talk about your work. If they are dismissing it as too decorative, for instance, that’s idealistic criticism, which is valid only if it’s understood. Formal criticism is what the tools of painting are about, and I think highly useful. It’s not an end to understanding painting but it is a very important aspect of it.

RF: Are there poets that you particularly enjoy?

WT: Yes, so many that it’s hard to name. Wallace Stevens, Williams, I love Dickenson, so many it’s hard to name…I had a friendship with John Updike. I’ve had good poets as friends. I think it’s interesting the way poets and writers talk about painting sometimes. I think it’s interesting, the New Yorker critic who really is a poet, he’s so fascinated in being a word-smith that it’s hard to tell what he thinks about painting sometimes.

RF: Adam Gopnik?

WT: No, it’s Peter Schjeldahl. No, Adam’s a personal friend. We became friends after he wrote about the work.

RF: …which was fun to read.

WT: I think he’s very good. But, ah, Michael Kimmelman – he comes from music, from the New York Times, he’s a concert pianist, a very good one. So these are all…I think you only get as rich a source of inspiration as you can, because you never know when something is going to help you see something a little differently.

RF: And they are all interrelated, aren’t they? There seems to be some basic principals that cross all boundaries.

WT: Yeah.

RF: One artist wrote: You’ve obviously been very successful…what do you hope people will take away with them?

WT: I hope some pleasure and humor. And, I think, hopefully see that I’m as interested in abstraction as I am in realism; trying to coordinate those two dialectic, which I think is a great challenge. I hope they do get some laughs. I think, for me, that is missing in the art world, tragically.

I hope they do get some laughs. I think, for me, that is missing in the art world, tragically.


RF: That we take ourselves too seriously?

WT: I think we take ourselves so seriously that we’re not very serious. If we were we’d be more like W.C. Fields, and we’d learn to better see ourselves as a cartoon, along with all the other things we like to think of ourselves.

RF: Another person asked about the three distinct periods of your work. Are they interconnected?

WT: They are in my mind, certainly. It’s all dealing with problems all the time. And they may look different…I think for me at least, I chose different subject matter because it gives me different problems. In total relationship to me, I see little difference about what they are about, in terms again using those two extremes, abstraction and realism. And they go towards one area or towards the other, and I like the idea of going back and forth. So the change in subject matter has to do with enthusiasms – I get painting too long on a certain thing.

Most of the series seem to take a long time. I think the cityscapes were like 16 years. But they are still going on, but they were 14 years before I even showed them. But the Delta Series and the landscapes, there are two different kinds of them, but they went on for some 10-15 years. So to do that I think you have to be, like we talked earlier, aware of the potential of profit from serialization, of being willing to do things over and over again, to make 12 paintings and out of that to chose two or three and destroy the rest, so that you’re using your own critical sense to the degree that you can. You’re never able to criticize yourself as deeply as you should at the moment you are doing it. Witness the fact of how you see it a month later, a year later. ‘Why didn’t I see that then like I see it now?’, which tells you to continue to hone and amplify and enlarge your critical capacity for interrogation.

RF: What do you think is the most important, talent or determination?

I said, “I don’t believe in talent.” He said, “Well, don’t knock it if you don’t have it.”

WT: Determination. I had a friend tell me one time, I said, “I don’t believe in talent.” He said, “Well, don’t knock it if you don’t have it.” Yes, talent certainly if you are a math person you can’t be Einstein, or a painter, you can’t be Michelangelo, but you can do as well as you can, and use what talent you have. The main thing is to work at it. You can get a lot of talent from working at it.

RF: My boys play hockey—one is a natural but the other is more determined. It’s amazing to see the world through their eyes.

WT: And you want to keep that. So many painters have talked about that, haven’t they, how important childlike awareness and vulnerability is for painting.

RF: Where do you think painting is headed today? You see a lot of students and mature painters, but, if it’s all been done…

WT: I don’t know honestly. It’s such a long tradition, some 30,000 years, starting with the cave period, and it’s such, as we said earlier, such a miraculous thing that that’s enough to convince me that painting is alive and flourishing. People love to say it’s dead, and that’s true; it’s a dead thing, silent, quiet, still, flat thing. You have to be willing to bring it alive either as a spectator or an artist. You look at the painting and you’re the one to determine its aliveness. Those coral Italianate landscape are so alive because you can feel his sludgy brushwork, how that red mud pushes into the rock. If you’re loving painting, that’s enough.

I just came back from seeing the Bonnard show, and three hours later you are just struck dumb by his astounding hesitation and love and awareness of what the hell life was about. And how important slowness is. And you understand why we’re just moving toward slower truth, slower life. The race is won by the slow, someone said. Your life – eating, loving, living intimately, slowly, watching the flowers and the grass grow – is central to being a painter, so that when you are painting you’re living, you’re extending your life, you are making your life. This is your one chance to be omnipotent. I’m making this little world myself. How could painting ever die? People will get to the point where they pay no attention to it if we don’t get it back in the school systems and give people access to it, but it will never die on its own. It’s up to people whether they want to make it alive or dead. Also, if you’re going to be a painter you’ve got to learn to draw and stay away from photographs – it’s a little too easy.

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

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