Since the onset of his career, Wayne Thiebaud has been fascinated by the pictorial possibilities of still-life subjects drawn from everyday American life. Of all his subjects, perhaps none are as recognizable or as renowned as his depictions of the cakes, pies and confections displayed in windows across the country. Having a background in commercial art, Thiebaud developed great respect for the ability of illustrators to concisely depict objects that address the viewer in a very direct way. Committed to a realist vocabulary, he gradually became more engrossed in the formal and abstract aspects of painting while teaching at an art school in California. As he explained, "At the end of 1959 or so I began to be interested in a formal approach to composition. I'd been painting gumball machines, windows, counters, and at that point began to rework paintings into much more clearly identified objects. I tried to see if I could get an object to sit on a plane and really be very clear about it. I picked things like pies and cakes—things based upon simple shapes like triangles and circles—and tried to orchestrate them" (quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, San Francisco, 2000, p. 15).
In Lemon Meringue Pie Slices, Thiebaud creates a complex contradiction between the depth of the pies, whose triangular forms appear vividly three-dimensional on the table, and the flatness of the seemingly abstract empty space that extends above and below. His brightly colored hues that play across the surface of the pies, constructing each slice in a unique but analogous manner, also create a sense of push and pull. Similarly, in Untitled (Cupcake), the sincere appeal of the cupcake belies the sophisticated realization of a classic painting problem: the challenge of making a round or cylindrical form within empty space visually compelling. Thiebaud cleverly turns to an exquisite use of color and texture, as well as a substantial shadow, to orchestrate an intimate environment for the viewer and cupcake to interact. It is these carefully honed formal aspects of Thiebaud's composition that elevate its humble subject into a fascinating object of aesthetic contemplation.
In lusciously rendered oil paint, he weds his realist subjects with a brilliant eye for abstraction and maintains an independent course in his devotion to the aesthetic delights of painting. Thiebaud admired an eclectic gamut of painters, from Chardin to Mondrian, and observed that "each distinctive painter has his own brush dance" (Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 48). Friends with Willem de Kooning since the 1950s, Thiebaud admired his supple handling of paint and inventive coloration. De Kooning reminded him of the primacy of his chosen material, "that painting was a lot more important than art" (Ibid., 48), as Thiebaud recalled. One of the signatures of Thiebaud's brushwork—which he discovered accidentally, then brilliantly manipulated and perfected—is the effect of halation around the contours of his objects created through the use of contrasting colors. This is beautifully apparent around the edges of the cupcake in Untitled (Cupcake), and especially in the icy blue shadow that languishes behind it, tinged on its periphery by touches of vibrant yellow.
Thiebaud presaged Pop art's obsession with consumer products and repetition—indeed, at his enormously successful debut at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1962, Andy Warhol was one of his many admirers. Yet Thiebaud did not share Pop’s satirical approach to popular culture and instead chose to embrace it, celebrating in earnest the aesthetic delights of the commonplace. Thiebaud’s orderly rows of lemon meringue pie slices arranged on plates evoke the kind of counter displays that lure customers to diners and bakeshops with an array of enticing options. Meanwhile, his singular depiction of a cupcake in Untitled (Cupcake), which commands the entirety of the composition, alludes to the decision already made, placing the viewer one step closer to succulent bliss. As archetypal American foods, both pies and cupcakes recall innumerable holidays and family gatherings, which roadside diners intentionally echo in offering a bit of this comfort and nostalgia on the road. Thiebaud's rendering of these treats effectively evokes the notion of countless shared memories, and he indeed painted such scenes from his memory rather than from life. As an accumulation of fragments of actual experience, these confections are instilled with a visual weight and solidity that makes them appear eternal.
Through such works, Thiebaud celebrates popular pleasures, but also the pleasure of painting. Thiebaud has never swayed from his passion for his medium, "People say painting's dead. Fine. It's dead for you. I don't care. Painting is alive for me. Painting is life for me" (Ibid., 41).