Untitled (Cityscape) of 1987 is an exquisite example of Wayne Thiebaud's fascination with the urban landscape of California, where he has lived for almost his entire life. After moving from Sacramento to San Francisco in 1973, Thiebaud became inspired by the dramatic vantage points and pitched perspectives of the city's topography. Famed for its car culture, California is known for its Byzantine networks of highways and freeways, which Thiebaud explored through colorful layers of watercolor and pencil in the present work. As Thiebaud remarked, "I was playing around with the abstract notions of edge - I was fascinated, living in San Francisco, by the way different streets just came in and then just vanished. So I sat out on a street corner and began to paint them." It was the "sense of edges appearing, things swooping around their own edges that I loved," he recounted (Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 58). His interest spread to the arteries of winding highways whose patterns could be observed from an aerial perspective, which form elaborate arabesques in the present work.
Thiebaud tilts the picture plane dramatically, thrusting the complex pictorial surface forward. He amplifies the opposing rhythms found in the racing highways and the soaring verticality of the high-rise buildings. Unlike Richard Diebenkorn, another master of the Californian landscape, Thiebaud did not sublimate his urban landscapes into ethereal abstractions. Rather, Thiebaud's cityscapes are filled with the pulse of life and individualized details, from the colors of cars speeding along the highway to the plumes of smoke billowing from factory chimneys in the distance. Thiebaud's unique combination of representation and abstraction, seriousness and wit, fluidity and structure, transforms Untitled (Cityscape) into an aesthetic fantasy that is almost surreal in its effect.