Wayne Thiebaud, Part Two

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: I think it was Picasso who said: “Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” I love your quote to that affect: “I’m very influenced by the tradition of painting and not at all self-conscious about identifying my sources…I actually just steal things from people that I can use—just blatant plagiarism.” Would you talk about some of your influences, especially people like Edward Hopper and Richard Diebenkorn, and explain how you feel they were influential?

I’m very influenced by the tradition of painting and not at all self-conscious about identifying my sources…I actually just steal things from people that I can use—just blatant plagiarism.

WT: Absolutely.

RF: I’d love to talk about that, and when we are talking about art and artists and sort of defining things, who would you say throughout your life has been an influence, and who do you look at as an artist.

WT: Well, all those people that I previously mentioned, and the whole tradition of great painting. It might help to clarify something, and I suppose being an old teacher of a hundred and eight years (laughs), when students come and are disinterested finally and say, ‘Well, everything has been done, what am I doing with this? How can I ever possibly be? Why should I add anything, if I could, to this?’ Well, you try to talk about the idea of influence. That’s the whole story of art history, form one stylistic variance, to one sort of character of style to one issuance of change.

This evidence of what we call ‘original’ are very minor changes. It’s almost as all painters are most surprised when someone comes along and does something and everybody gets all excited about this, and some of us say, ‘What? That’s not surprising. That comes out of, you know, Roman Illusionistic painting, and so and so.’ What is it if you take someone like Van Gogh and you can find all his influences from French Tapestries and Magacello, Daumier, Millet, all of his heroes, Pissarro, Degas, all the people he said he loved, he loved Cezanne. And you can say, ‘Yes, you can find all those issuances in Van Gogh—why is he still Van Gogh?’ It’s a new visual species slightly away from all of his influences; it’s suddenly this new visual species. So, as soon as you say “Van Gogh!” (snaps his fingers), this IBM card – not only is it painting – it’s also, when I look at a cypress it’s a Van Gogh cypress. How he made that connection – it’s a miracle, a marvel.

RF: I was just thinking of an opera that Zandra Rhodes a fashion designer designed the sets for. She really channeled Van Gogh into the sets, so instead of regular palm trees they all had these Van Gogh patterns. So she took his patterns and gave them her own twist for the Bizet opera the Pearl Fishers. It was so stimulating; to reflect the music and not over power it.

WT: That’s terrific and that’s why we do what we do.

RF: I know this is the bane of the artist: the title. People have said you’re a ‘Pop artist’ others have said, no, he’s not a ‘Pop artist’ he’s a ‘Realist.’ What do you think of all these titles?

Well, you’re lucky to have people call you anything.

WT: Well, you’re lucky to have people call you anything. I’m just essentially a traditional representational painter, and by that I mean, always interested in imagery, trying to make a representational painting that has as much abstraction as seems to fit that particular mode of representation. The tradition, which is so long enduring, for me, is that which is able to manage those two things, essentially, memory and perception; how to negotiate and orchestrate those two rather extreme dualities. The synthesis that you might make from that is what is for me so fascinating in the long tradition of painting.

The thing that influenced me, (one of your other questions was what other things influenced me), would be poetry, literature, but also sports. The reason for that is central: that’s the concept of empathy, muscularity, kinesis, where a work of painting for me always achieves its results if things like balance, symmetry, grace – based on the human body – our reach, our actions, our bounce, that plumb line of body that tells us when things are skewed or when those vectors operate in space in a certain way. So, you’re tuning the body in terms of growing and rendering light and understanding how illusion operates, when you can’t use illusion, when you are not verifying plasticity of the surface of the two-dimensional surface area, you are trying to reduce the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional surface, which is an impossible idea but a marvelous picture. And when you deal with fictions, you then have to believe in that fiction in your body, in your mind and prove that you are doing that by externalizing it for people to see and experience.

If your not going to a Cezanne exhibition and doing this (he moves forward and back in his chair as if dancing with an imaginary partner), but his carving and his trip through space, if you’re not feeling that you’re missing what Cezanne’s perceptual orchestration was about. He’s always trying to find where that thing is. It’s astounding. Sport is a kind of metaphor for a thrill with what the body can do, whether it’s ballet or basketball or golf or tennis, all of those characteristics. So, I’m not liked [by my students] because I make them stand when they paint. Sitting is a whole other thing. At least for a while, I like to get their bodies up and moving and feeling all these touches that they are making on this raw surface are operating themselves. Isn’t that nutty?

RF: No, actually that makes sense. I’ve always heard people talk about athletics that there is a muscle memory…

WT: Absolutely.

RF: …so, the more you do something your muscles have a memory for it, and painting is a physical activity. Then you have the memory of your mind to coordinate with your hand. It always seems that if you are searching, though, that that hand never quite does what’s in your head.

WT: No.

RF: I wanted to talk about Diebenkorn – you were friends, right?

WT: Yes. I miss him.

RF: He influenced several artists I know. I have a friend who had the great good fortune to paint with him. I wanted to talk about him and something you said about how Diebenkorn was thought of as provincial for working out in the West, or more precisely, for not working in New York City.

WT: Well, that’s that New York provincialism. You just can’t deny and they can’t deny it. They are uncomfortable with the idea that everyone should be thinking, “Why aren’t I in New York?” They just can’t imagine anyone living elsewhere. And that’s the great thing about New York; it’s one of the greatest places in the world. It’s so easy then to think about regionalism. But in the tradition of painting there were a lot of great hick painters.

RF: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

WT: So, they like the idea of calling Diebenkorn’s painting ‘California painting.’ They refer to me as a California artist. And that of course is like saying ‘California mathematics.’ There is only one kind of painting and it’s the whole tradition and Dick loved that so well. He loved the idea of trying to combine Mondrian and Matisse in some reasonable, interesting way; but mainly just sticking to the agonizing process of just trying to get the damn thing right. He was not highly articulate, but he was very bright, very well read, loved poetry, loved music. So, that hesitancy in his proceedings was tantamount in giving him the strength to be willing to wait, change, modify, extrapolate, destroy, rebuild. That is the kind of thing which his influence is so useful to painters or to anyone, but that for me was central to his power, and a very great painter.

RF: It was interesting the phases his work went through – and I wanted to talk to you about the phases your work has gone through especially as we look at a 70 year retrospective – his phases were from abstract expressionism, then coming back around and shocking the world by painting realism…

I like to paint anything I want, any time I want, repaint things, paint a pie if I want to, and that understandably drives critics crazy.

WT: I think that is only shocking to people who have no access to painting. Painting is…it doesn’t matter if it’s abstract or realism, it’s all the same, based on relationships, based on color; all the things are the same. It’s wonderful to think of it in those terms, I think. It can be a great danger. My own sense, I think I’m way too wide. I like to paint anything I want, any time I want, repaint things, paint a pie if I want to, and that understandably drives critics crazy. I’m determined to paint anything I want.

We were in Palm Springs before an opening and sitting in a café and a fellow came up from the street and asked, “What is this group, you’re whole family joshing around, what are you doing?” My son said, “That’s my father over there having an exhibition.” “What do you mean exhibition?” “He’s showing paintings at the Palm Desert Museum.” “He is? What’s it called?” “Seventy Years of Painting.” This guy just looked at me and said, “That guy should get a life.” (Laughs) He was dead right, that’s my life. Anyone else, unless you’re highly neurotic, passionate about something…so that’s my take on it.

You’re only a prostitute when you are doing something out of not loving it.

Dick, he always, he was very impatient when his work became formulaic. That’s something you have to guard against. Except, those formulas also are very crucial, you’ve got to work them out, that serialization of a single theme or idea has to go on until it evaporates. You’re only a prostitute when you are doing something out of not loving it. Painting morally persists when its substance is still real and qualitative, and exists there when you’ve done in that instance the best you can do.

RF: And then constant challenging of oneself.

WT: Always. You never can really be still.

RF: Which came first, the pies or the thought to reduce things to simple shapes?

WT: I don’t know; it’s so hard to disentangle something like that. It’s all one piece. When I was in advertising I don’t think I work very much different than I do now except I have a lot more time to work on things and try to get them more interesting or spend more time with them or refine them more or make them crazier without the art director saying you can’t do that.

RF: You were mentioning that with de Kooning it was the reduction of the figure, is that something that when you saw those works for the first time, did that strike a chord or change things for you in some way?

WT: Well, he was very influential in many ways; some of the things I’m saying came from him. He was very impatient with critical writing, for instance, he thought it was mostly nonsense. When you talk about… He said one time, “They say I have ‘non-environmental space.’ What in God’s name does that mean? But it’s a great term so I’m going to use it.”

Well, de Kooning was amazingly trained, as you probably know, six years at the Academy where you don’t get a graduation, you have to go before a board and say to them, “I think I’m well trained.” He said, “Can you imagine me saying that? I just snuck off one night.” He was so beautifully trained as a draftsman. Such exquisite use of line, like Holbein, his rendering in charcoal was extraordinarily beautiful, like Chardin still life. He knew a lot of anatomy and design and color. He wanted to be an illustrator, a commercial artist, that’s why he came to New York.

RF: When I see his work, it’s very confrontational. Was that him?

He was trying to be an artist, and that’s dangerous.

WT: Him? He was trying to be an artist, and that’s dangerous. But he was willing to chance it. He refers to himself – he wanted to take that and use it to look at his painting because it’s a great instruction – ‘I’m a slipping glimpser.’ Perfect term to tell you what he’s trying to do with these elaborate brushstrokes; if the brushstroke stopped, it’s stopped, like this (he suspends his arm still in the air as if holding a brush). And that’s a great thing to look for, what’s underneath? That’s not a generalization, it’s an essentialization.

The best thing I ever heard about de Kooning was when someone asked Salvador Dali what he thought of de Kooning and he said something very profound and insightful, he said, “He’s okay if you like blown-up Valasquez details. So, go to Valaquez and look at “Les Enfant” shirt, blow it up and see if you’ve got a de Kooning.”

It’s a lesson that if students get it they grow substantially because they begin to think about all these tools that are knowledge, that are so alive, and still possibilities to use just because you enjoy the hell out of it. It’s so great to frost a cake with de Kooning brushstrokes because it has to do with the whole interesting…what is tempo in painting? You don’t think of that because it’s still, but none-the-less integral. Those brushstrokes are the indication of time, the difference in time between two concurrent painters. Rembrandt, still, quiet, dark, very slow and Frans Hals – fall back in the chair. It’s a whole different thing about time – or light. Understanding how rich light has to be in a painting to include as many kinds of light as you can, even in a dark still life. The use of glowing light, glare light, where it’s over-focused, gleam – all those tools of light that you can use in your own painting and enrich it so you don’t settle for easy solutions or one-dimensional attitude. I don’t know…You can see why I’m so interested in teaching. You get with students to some point dealing with questions.

RF: I was wondering about Hopper. I saw the show at the Art Institute…

WT: Was that the one with Homer watercolors?

RF: Yes, across the hall.

WT: Yes, I saw that in Chicago.

RF: You did too? Well, I felt like I met him after walking through the show. I felt like I met him and I’m not sure how I feel about that. He seemed much more open in his work that he was – from what I’ve read about him – in his life. But the work seemed to really, maybe reflect how he looked at relationships, aside from the art I felt like he bared his soul in the work.

WT: Very good painter. And in art world talk they do him a disservice. Greenberg says something like this, and it’s an art world kind of way of putting down someone but not too far because they are so well considered by so many people…

RF: …so you can’t really say anything too bad…

So, Greenberg says, “If Hopper were a better painter, he wouldn’t be such a great artist.”

WT: Right. So, Greenberg says, “If Hopper were a better painter, he wouldn’t be such a great artist.” You give that to a student and the student has to puzzle that out. If you are useful to the student, you make sure that he understands something like that because it’s a central question.

Why is there a great rage right now that if we want good artists we have to ‘de-skill’ people. What’s that about? It’s about primativism and the use of primativism and how important primativism is. It’s great to celebrate academic drawing but you have to be sure that you indicate the risks of that as well so that people don’t get trapped in it, that they use it properly as a tool that’s going on, as a tool for extrapolation (God, why am I talking so much? Well, I haven’t been teaching for a while.)

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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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