Monday, April 11, 2016

No Holds Barred: Revisiting Wayne 51 years later

Wayne Thiebaud and Blair with their souvenir postcards of Girl in White Boots, 1966.
By Blair Sabol
Photographs by Baron Wolman

Portraits are tricky: With John Singer Sargent, they were historic people in a certain time and space; with David Hockney, it was “celebrations” of dear friends and dogs; with Lucien Freud, it was brutal representations of ex-lovers and ex-wives. Most of the famous “sitters” were already personal participants in these artists’ lives.

None of this was true of my experience as Wayne Thiebaud’s “Girl in White Boots.” In fact, Thiebaud never called his series (1962-1968) paintings of people “portraits.” They were “figures.”

Up to 1963, Thiebaud made his name painting cakes, ice cream cones, and gumball machines. His work was known to be sensually detailed, with his thick coats of paint – you could feel you could eat the food off the canvas. So colorful and fun were his visuals. They “bounced” but remained real. He made his name in the Pop Art era only because he painted common objects. But even he refused to be labeled a Pop artist. “I am not an artist. I am a painter – I was never a fan of Warhol and that gang – I preferred Morandi and Cezanne. But Pop Art allowed me to get known.”
Pies, Pies, Pies (1961), by Wayne Thiebaud.
When I met Wayne in 1965 – he was just emerging as a young star artist at Alan Stone Gallery. It was my mother’s idea to have him paint me like one of his pies – we just weren’t sure he would do it. We came to his modest Sacramento garage studio one afternoon in June to pitch our whim. I even decided to wear my favorite white go-go boots and yellow knock-off Courreges dress for the hell of it. Mom and I sat down with Wayne and his warm and beautiful wife Betty Jean (who resembled a young Bryan Cranston – handsomely ruddy and those bright half moon blue eyes that is the epitome of a Californian) and talked about the idea. The next thing I knew, Wayne said in his soft-celled enthusiasm – “Lets just do it ... right now."

Before I knew it, he had me profile seated in a white metal chair and he told me to relax and concentrate straight ahead. No Muss, no Fuss. No conversation. We had never met before, and then we spent 3 days together from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. He actually worked fast and sure. Always standing. He later told me he always paints standing in his comfy sneakers. “It gives you a better perspective.”
Wayne with his wife Betty Jean.
He rarely spoke to me, and frankly, I had nothing to say. At times I wondered what the hell we were doing. He played NPR constantly (I had never heard of it at that time). In the afternoon, Betty Jean would feed me snacks (she was an incredible cook), and after the session would drive me back to my Mom who was staying in a nearby motel. The Beach Boys happened to be staying in the same motel and we could hardly get through the lobby as the crowds were screaming! In was NOT the Summer of Love ... yet.

The last day of the sitting I remember feeling like I was melting into the chair – I lost my spine. My outfit, and mood, were sagging. He finally got to my face. By then, I’m sure I wore an expression beyond pissed, tired and aggravated. But Wayne held the energy of optimism and genuineness with a folksy sense of humor, and sheer kindness. He always showed genuine concern for how I was holding up, and we would take breaks. But I never wanted to look at the painting. Fearful?

At the end of the last day, I finally got the nerve. I was stunned at the overwhelming size of my 5 X 8 “Figure” up close. The layers of neon paint outlining my body and the lack of shadows – I felt strangely “captured.” Even my expression portrayed who I really was.
Girl in White Boots, Wayne Thiebaud, 1966.
I never forgot that experience. He and Betty Jean seemed to work in perfect unison. She would finish his sentences whenever he told a dry joke. They played tennis a lot, and loved to cook together. Betty Jean became famous as his “wife-turned-model” for many of his early figures: “Girl with Ice Cream Cone,” “Woman in Tub,” and “Two Kneeling Figures.” She was the perfect cheerleader throughout the sitting experience and always talked to me about fashion.

Wayne’s early figures had a certain innocence about them (like the '60s) and yet a presence that felt like “Just the facts, please. Just the facts ...” All in delicious colors. Nothing too complicated.
Betty Jean as Girl with Ice Cream Cone, 1963.
Well ... that was then ...

A year later, “Girl in White Boots” became the cover of Art News – April 1966. They jokingly called it “Whistler’s Daughter.” The painting then traveled the United States in various shows. In 2000, in Wayne’s Retrospective at the Whitney, S.S. Fair of the New York Times wrote:

“... the subject, who posed for the goof of it, was later ridiculed for making like Mona Lisa in Courreges and white go-go boots no less .... The Courreges look not only outlasted its initial hype as ‘Jetsons’ type cartoon futurism – but also is some 40 years later, the fashion of the moment. And that baby boomer in the yellow dress, sitting perfectly still, coiled dyspeptic, casting no shadow, turned out to be both a lively metaphor and a stylistic construct of an era, a picture perfect capsule, starting with the clothes and hair, and ending with the clothes and hair. It was 1965 and Thiebaud caught it and nailed it to the wall. The dark side of the decade had yet to emerge.”

And this is now ...

The painting stayed with my Mom in her Philadelphia home. Eventually she got rid of her entire art collection, retaining only the Thiebaud. I remember Vidal Sassoon expressed interest in buying it – as did many dealers. Mom and I refused. I heard a story about Steven Spielberg wanting to buy the rights to Irving Berlin’s song (“I’ll be loving you .... Always”) for his film of the same name. Berlin was 100 years old at the time and told Spielberg, “Forget it – I won’t part with that song. I have bigger plans for it.” He didn’t. He died instead. I feel the same about “Girl in White Boots.”

Recently, a famous auction house viewed it for an estimate and evaluation. Their answer – “It’s nice, but it’s no Thiebaud Cake.” Actually it is the ultimate Thiebaud pastry.

Unlike “The Picture of Dorian Gray” I continued to age (on into my 70s) but the portrait held its own. Recently my Mom had “Girl” packed up for storage and as the Luxury Storage Technicians (they were the same team that moved the Barnes Collection) in white gloves and white jackets dismantled her and put her in the crate – they all stood in silence for a moment and one saluted. (I wonder if I would get such a send off on my own final day!)
Portrait rendition by art student Lara Kleinschmidt.
I suddenly realized I needed to see Wayne Thiebaud for one more visit – 51 years later. I found his phone number actually listed (though all his affairs are handled by his step-son Matthew Bult) and of course he still lived in Sacramento. He is now considered a California treasure if not a National Treasure. He and Jasper Johns are the oldest living American artists.

When I called him and told him that, he corrected me: “Remember – I am not an artist – I’m a painter!” Although he was listed as one of the top ten highest auctioned paintings (in the millions), he refused to focus on that. “I find the business of art nowadays really puzzling – unreal and so temporary. It doesn’t attract me. Crazy stuff.”

We made a date to meet and he told me he turned 95 in November and still painted every day, and played his favorite game of tennis three times a week. Nothing Changed. But it did.
Souvenir Postcards of Girl in White Boots, 1966.
When I arrived at his studio in downtown Sacramento with photographer Baron Wolman – we both noted that the “light” of Northern California was “so Wayne.” It had that neon halo around everything in silhouette and the crackle of brightness.

Sacramento is perfect for Wayne; it has that lineage of Gold Rush, Pony Express and sense of family. He’s lived in Sacramento for over 50 years and taught at USC Davis on and off for the same time. In Sacramento he is beloved for his art and especially food painting. After all, Northern California is the originator of “Farm to Fork” cuisine. So is Wayne.
Matthew, Wayne, and Blair in Paul Thiebaud's office.
He and his stepson Matt and his musician grandson Alex met us at the door – three generations of “genuine warmth.” There was nothing frail or fragile about Wayne. Not one single joint has been replaced, and no sign of hearing aids or even a cane. His memory seemed perfect: “Actually I paint mostly from memory – it is a major tool for me.”

He showed me around his studio, which was his son Gallerist Paul Thiebaud’s office originally. Paul died ten years ago of a rare colon cancer, but his Paul Thiebaud Gallery continues to do well in San Francisco. I noticed one small figure painting on the main studio floor of Betty Jean, “Woman in Tub.”
Woman in Tub, 1965.
Her horizontal pose took on a haunting sense for me, as I knew she had died this past December after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. But with all this major loss, Wayne seemed himself. “Living alone is very hard, but I paint (with no assistant) and play my tennis and I am lucky to have been born of tough Mormon stock. My grandmother lived to 99. My mother, 97. I was a spoiled and adored child, I got my way No drama.”

We sat in Paul’s office and Wayne managed to leave Paul’s desk exactly the way Paul always had it. With family pictures, African art pieces, and a small china dish with a Thiebaud sprig of cherries painted in its center. It was clearly a kind of living shrine and altar for Wayne now.
Blair, Matthew Bult, and Wayne.
Wayne, Matthew Bult, and his son Alex.
“I am so lucky – I find painting so challenging every day. Also, I love teaching and that keeps me current and engaged.” He still “teaches” as emeritus and sees his past students frequently. One student described him as a “perfect balance of sophisticated and yet folksy – reserved and yet full of humor, austere but quintessentially American.” I told him he was truly an “old master.” “No,” he corrected me, “I am just an old pie maker.”

Eventually we got to talking about what he remembered of his painting “Girl in White Boots.” “Okay, I remember you and your Mom clearly. I knew to put you in that hard chair because I saw the angles I wanted. I wanted a rigorous pose. I remember your dress had a certain stiffness in those linen folds – and your hair was sleek. I wanted it to look like a Mondrian with stark colors and a sense of line. And I loved those white boots!”
Blair interviewing Wayne.
Both in their comfy sneakers.
I told him how many people over the years thought my expression seemed angry (I actually felt that he ironically foresaw and portrayed the edgy tough disposition I mastered in my later years, which at the time had just began to express itself). “Oh, I never saw that. My figures are not supposed to reveal anything – they are like seeing a stranger in some airport terminal for the first time – you might look at his suit, but you have no feeling about him at all. The devil is in the details. Both my figures and landscapes are dealing in the same issue – lighting, color, and structure.”

We entered his actual painting space where one of his San Francisco “hill-scapes” was on the wall and he said “I always work from memory – not photos – it makes it more risky and exciting.”
Wayne reminiscing.
On a table was his latest book by Rizzoli with a vibrant blue aerial landscape on the cover. I remarked that it was “Thiebaud blue” and did he have a favorite color? “It’s like asking which child you like best – I hate all colors equally.”

When Baron asked him if he would stand in a picture with me in the same “Girl in White Boots” pose – in true Wayne fashion, he answered quickly, “Sure, sure, let’s do it.”
Recreating the portrait 51 years later!
And one with Wayne.
As we did our photographs, he talked about his teaching: “Students keep you honest and current. After all, I had Mel Ramos and Bruce Naumen as students and many more. I often think I don’t know really how we learn. I think you teach yourself. I did. I had no formal training. But I met great teachers on the way. De Kooning taught me to go home and paint what I know. I knew food – I loved pies. Today I love a good malted milk.”

How does he know what to paint next? “Well, I paint what I know how to do – it has to come from a deeper place within me and I always go back to basics – like making hamburgers, tying shoelaces, washing dishes. De Kooning told me to find the things you can’t leave alone – don’t make signs of art – paint a real experience and don’t be afraid to risk failure ... I leave a lot of stuff unfinished.”
Thiebaud's electrying palette.
As I was getting ready to leave “Wayne’s World,” he gave me some tips to life – “It’s simple – stay active. I still go up and down my stairs. I have a great family I am close to. I get up early and paint first – then I go out for tennis and I may watch a little of the financial news – nothing too depressing – and remember to just stay open to all of life – especially those small everyday things and occurrences.”

Thiebaud still makes it all look and sound “Easy as Pie.”
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