Wayne Thiebaud's magnificent Blue Hill of 1967 is an early and important example of the artist's landscape paintings. From the moment of his first exhibitions in 1962 at the Allan Stone Gallery and then the de Young Museum in San Francisco (which were met with enormous acclaim), Thiebaud quickly established himself as an important interpreter of subjects drawn from everyday American life, particularly through his ingenious rows of pies, cakes and candies. By 1967 he had shifted his attention to landscape, which would remain a significant subject for Thiebaud's painterly experimentation throughout the rest of his career. Although he reached maturity as a painter around 1959, when the discourse around avant-garde painting in the United States was geared toward abstraction, he never ceased to be enthralled by the aesthetic beauty that could be found around him every day. Blue Hill exemplifies how Theibaud's painterly technique embraces the entire surface of his canvas, creating beauty through his unique treatment of both real and abstract forms.
Choosing to settle in California (after growing up in Arizona) Thiebaud was keenly attuned to the natural splendor that surrounded him. At the time he painted Blue Hill, Thiebaud was living in Sacramento. Although at first glance the painting might seem to represent pure fancy, it is actually based on the character of the large bluffs and plunging cliffs found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Sacramento. As Theibaud acknowledged, "many people think that they're invented forms, that they're esoteric, or even arcane surrealists' references; but they're not that at all. They're painted right on the spot. I think people aren't used to seeing things cut from corner to corner so rudely or crudely, and maybe it's upsetting or seems unfulfilled in the sense of space. It's something, nonetheless, that fascinates me. It came about by driving across the country and actually going through those canyons. Those imposing structures seem to just fall in on you and make such a nice visual shape that I can't resist doing them" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in D. Tooker, "Wayne Thiebaud," Art International, 18 November 1974: 25).
Enticed by the pure beauty of their undulating shapes (Thiebaud chose subjects based on their visual allure, such as tempting sweets), Thiebaud rendered the scene with a highly sensual use of paint and pastel. When working with landscape, Thiebaud would often make small sketches on site, then transfer them to large scale canvas. In translating the contours of the hillside, he took advantage of the inherent properties of his mediums - using pastel to impart a hazy, misty atmosphere, and paint that seems to be poured onto the canvas in a way that approximates the sheer drop of the hill that cascades downward.
The painting's massive scale forcefully conveys the enormous hill, whose girth swells to fill almost the entire canvas. The Lilliputian trees and vegetation that Thiebaud lightheartedly depicts amplify the viewer's feeling of being dwarfed by nature. The dark hill seems to be an inky deep blue at first, but slowly other shades materialize out of the darkness. Vertical bands of blue, purple, brown and green emerge in a manner that recalls the extended revelation of a viewer in front of an Ad Reinhardt black painting. The seemingly monolithic hill is comprised of a range of other smaller bluffs and outcroppings that are picked out by deft touches of orange pastel, then pressed together in the picture plane.
Thiebaud's renders the hill with an aesthetic power similar to the impact of a masterful color field painting. Indeed, the hill closely resembles the mountainous veils of color washes in Morris Louis's poured canvases of the 1960s. Blue Hill could, in fact, be taken as a jocular parody of such paintings, taking to task their hallowed aura of pure abstraction. Thiebaud wittily points out that such compositions can be found right in nature. Thiebaud's painting achieves the sublime without ever giving up the tangible landscape that tempts him. He had spent time at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, where all the greats of Abstract Expressionism gathered, and was inspired by the masterful abstract paintings of acquaintances such as Willem de Kooning. Thiebaud's genius as an artist lies in his ability to seize on subjects from the American vernacular and transform them in his own unique fashion into paintings such as Blue Hill that could hold their own when matched against any master of abstraction.