A classic trio of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, Dressing Wells is Wayne Thiebaud's homage to the humble American condiment. Painted at the same time as Hot Dogs, (and surely with the subject still in mind), it is one of the artists' earliest foodstuff still-lives, and marks the breakthrough moment when Thiebaud would shift into the "high" mature style that guaranteed his place in the canon of American Art.
Whereas works as late as 1959 (see Sleeping Figure) show Thiebaud still attached to a darker, abstract expressionist aesthetic, Dressing Wells shows a dramatic departure from the gestural towards what the artist would later start to call an "object-based painting." Limiting his painterly impulses to clean strokes that followed the contours of a simple composition, in their restricted application and reduced subject matter, these paintings recalled the loud and bright straightforwardness of advertisements. The evolution signaled a momentous change for the artist, whereby he was finally given the opportunity to scrutinize and create an abstract quantification for a series of objects on a surface plane. The artificial processing and shapes of 20th century American food was a fortuitous coincidence with his interest in modernist compositions. "At the end of 1959 or so I began to be interested in a formal approach to compositionI tried to see if I could get an object to sit on a plane and really be very clear about it. I picked things [that were] based upon simple shapes like triangles and circles -and tried to orchestrate them." (Wayne Thiebaud quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: A Painting Retrospective exh. cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2000, p.15).
Given the chance to focus on each object allowed Thiebaud to center his attention on form and color, and it is while working in this compositional scheme, at the time that Dressing Wells was completed, that the artist developed his signature halos, capturing the refracted light on each of his objects. The simple trick (lining the edge of an object with a lighter color to provide the illusion of mass) is a Renaissance technique as old as oil painting itself, but when Thiebaud appropriated it for his own use he had the license (provided by modern painting and surrealism and a slew of other movements) to expand upon it. In a variety of hues, both observed and imagined, his halos are thick and psychedelic, in this painting, giving the simple white bowls a sort of supernatural bluish light that lends an ironic romantic feeling to the picture, not entirely unlike the tenderness of a classic tabletop still life painted by Morandi.
Restricting his compositions in the early 1960s freed Thiebaud in other ways. No longer chained to a sort of representational realism and the struggle to depict entire spaces, Thiebaud embraced the levity of the "Pop" aesthetic and began to dignify the smallest objects, and even the most apolitical and mundane. His paintings became both formal experiments but also documents of American experience. Pulling again from Art Historical references, Theibaud sees his still-lives as future relics of our 20th and 21st century. "Commonplace objects are constantly changing, and when I paint the ones I remember, I am like Chardin tattling on what we were. The pies, for example, we now see are not going to be around forever. We are merely used to the idea that things do not change." (quoted in Thiebaud, A Paintings Retrospective, p. 19, originally from Le Grace, Benson and Shearer, "Documents," 70.)
His frank embrace of a simplicity in our objects is not meant to be a comment on American gluttony , or a critique of our culture. Instead, Thiebaud expresses a sincere sensuality, a communication of pleasure through tactile objects and color. He explains, "[My subject matter] was a genuine sort of experience that came out of my life, particularly the American world in which I was privileged to be. It just seemed to be the most genuine thing which I had done." (quoted in Thiebaud, A Paintings Restrospective, p. 18, originally from Stephen C. McGough, "An Interview with Wayne Thiebaud," in Thiebaud Selects Thiebaud: A Forty-Year Survey from Private Collections, exh. cat., Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum, 1996, 8-9)