The bold sculptural forms and brilliant colors of Wayne Thiebaud's Seven Suckers of 1970 make the painting a pure pleasure for the eyes. Depicting rows of confections with sensual strokes of paint and a daring palette, the painting is classic Thiebaud. The modest subject of lollipops is transformed by the artist into a masterful exploration of color and form.
Since the 1950s, Thiebaud was fascinated by the pictorial possibilities of still-life subjects drawn from everyday American life, such as the cakes, pies and confections displayed in windows across the country. There is a democratic aura to these objects of middle-class consumption, both in their accessible nature and in the way they stand in rows in an individualized yet egalitarian manner. 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 challenges to traditional mediums of art making, and instead maintained an independent course in his devotion to the aesthetic delights of oil paint.
Each of the seven suckers is painted with a variety of colors and swirling brushstrokes that heighten their feeling of tangibility, fueling the viewer's longing for the pleasures they insinuate. The seventh sucker sits half-way out of the frame, suggesting how desire always strives for that which is out of reach. Yet by bathing them in a cool raking light, which casts blue shadows on the pearly ground on which they sit, and arranging them so that they recede away from the viewer, Thiebaud imparts a sense of remove. This also contributes to an atmosphere of nostalgia that is amplified in the way they resemble the kind of hand-made treats that belong to the past. Although their tactility suggests direct observation, Thiebaud in fact painted them from memory, which served to crystallize and intensify their remembered forms.
Like Chardin, Thiebaud's painted meditations on humble objects such as Seven Suckers reveals an extraordinary sensitivity to the beauty of light and surfaces. Under each painter's brush, there is a kind of alchemy of the everyday into surprising aesthetic richness. 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. He also enjoyed Giorgio Morandi's quiet distillations of geometric objects, with their slowly applied brushstrokes that emphasize an extended process of looking.
One of the signatures of Thiebaud's brushwork - that he discovered accidentally then brilliantly manipulated - is the effect of halation around the contours of his objects created through the use of contrasting colors. This is beautifully apparent around the rims of the lollipops in the present painting, and especially in the icy blue shadows that are tinged on their borders by touches of orange. Thiebaud further used the texture of his differently paced brushstrokes to play off one another for added depth. Even in the empty space on which the lollipops rest, there is a rich variety of brushwork, where fluid strokes lead in different directions to heighten the sensuality of the surface.
In Seven Suckers, Thiebaud seized on a subject that reflects an everyday form of embellishment - that of candy-makers who play with color and line to create their own wares - and elevates it with a painterly sophistication that rivals great abstract painting. The vibrating discs of color that Robert Delaunay optimistically painted in the early 20th century find new life in Thiebaud's homage to unpretentious sweets. 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).