Pieces of Pumpkin of 1962 is a classic Wayne Thiebaud still-life, painted during the year that Pop suddenly exploded on the American art scene. Thiebaud's slices of pie, and his other signature still-life subjects drawn from diners and shops across the country, became instant icons of modern American painting. Although he focused on subjects drawn from popular culture, Thiebaud was not concerned with Pop's satirical bent, and instead chose to celebrate in earnest the aesthetic delights of the commonplace. In lusciously rendered oil paint, he wedded his realist subjects with a brilliant eye for abstraction.
Thiebaud's orderly row of pumpkin pie slices arranged on plates evokes the kind of counter displays that lure customers to diners and bakeshops. As an archetypal American food, pumpkin pie also recalls innumerable holidays and family gatherings, which roadside diners intentionally echo in offering a bit of this comfort and nostalgia on the road. The pumpkin pie conveys a certain ambient sense of American identity, not just as a staple of Thanksgiving, but also in the way its egalitarian rows are imbued with an egalitarian democratic air. Thiebaud's rendering of these slices of pie 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 slices of pie are instilled with a visual weight and solidity that makes them appear eternal. Yet Thiebaud also captures in this painting a sense of nostalgia for a part of American life that was slipping away, and of which the slices of pie are reminders. As Thiebaud put it, "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 know see are not going to be around forever. We are merely used to the idea that things do not change" (quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, San Francisco, 2000, p. 19).
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" (Ibid, p. 15). In Pieces of Pumpkin, Thiebaud creates a complex contradiction between the depth of the pies, whose pyramidal forms appear vividly three-dimensional in their display case, 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 seemingly identical slice in a unique manner, also create a sense of push and pull. Likewise, the smooth impasto of his oil paint both insists on the flatness of the canvas, yet also melds into the receding surface of the slices of pie. It is indeed such carefully honed formal aspects of Thiebaud's composition that elevates its humble subject into a fascinating object of aesthetic contemplation.
In many ways, Thiebaud's paintings such as Pieces of Pumpkin presaged Pop art's obsession with consumer products and repetition. At his enormously successful debut in 1962 at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York, Andy Warhol was one of his many admirers. Indeed, there was a clear element of daring in Thiebaud's choice of such quotidian subjects. Yet Thiebaud never abandoned the commitment to many of the principles of post-war abstraction that Pop had reacted against. Although he was based in California, on his frequent trips to New York he mingled with the abstract expressionist painters who converged on the Cedar Bar in the fifties, and became close to a number of them, including Willem de Kooning. Following de Kooning's example, Thiebaud preserved a reverence for the sensuality and expressiveness of oil paint as a medium. Although on one hand, his row of pies seems to sit squarely in a countertop display case, they also seem to have cut through the abstract realm of a color field painting. Thiebaud's composition for Pieces of Pumpkin exemplifies his distinctive approach to Realism, whereby a painter "can enliven a construct of paint by doing any number of manipulations and additions to what he sees," resulting in works that are "both abstract and real simultaneously" (Ibid, 19-20).