Easily considered one of the foremost painters of the age, for over seventy years Wayne Thiebaud has captivated critics and viewers alike with his unopposed mastery of capturing the true essence of the objects that he paints. Possessing an interest in the everyday and prosaic, Thiebaud’s canvases have continued to be critically revered in the way he takes commonplace material and transforms and uplifts it to a new plane through his manipulation of paint to evoke shadows, light and the glistening surfaces of his objects. Penny Slot captures the integrity of the object itself, while at the same time provides an uncanny sense of humanity, removing the stark mechanical feel of the object. A reprise of a work he did on the same subject in the 1960s, Thiebaud’s revision of this subject matter decades later is an indicator of how he works and paints his subjects basing it mostly on memory rather than from life, demonstrating how his vantage point has changed over the years.
Thiebaud was first inspired to paint a jackpot machine during his trips to the casinos of Lake Tahoe, California. The object not only embodies a personal memory for Thiebaud, but also conjures specific emotions for the viewer. Since the initial invention of the modern slot machine in 1887 by Charles Fey in San Francisco, the public has reveled in the possibility to ‘win big’ by performing the simple act of pulling a lever. The excitement and exhilaration caused by this quick motion and the short moment between action and result would cause anyone’s heart to skip a beat as the player anticipates a successful outcome. It is not only luck, but a positive mental attitude that people attribute to successful gambling, and therefore the double slot machines act as stand-in proxy for this uplifting feeling. Noting coaxingly the price of just 1 cent, how could the player refuse with so little at stake? It is not only the desire of winning, of being lucky, but the way in which one anthropomorphizes the machine itself that creates an attraction to Thiebaud’s Penny Slot. In an interview where he discussed his earlier painting of the same subject from 1962 Thiebaud explained that they “represent an odd extension of the human configuration in that they have arms...and sort of eyes” (W. Thiebaud, quote reprinted in J. Binstock, “Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Jackpot Machine,’” American Art, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1996, p. 80).
Reprised after forty years, the present work serves as a relic; a monument to a specific moment in the artist’s memory. Not only is it crucial that Thiebaud chose to return to this same subject matter as both a personal exercise and a continual exploration of the subject matter of his memories, but it also now serves as a nostalgic rendering of cultural historical moment, isolated from its original context. Taken out of situ of a casino in Lake Tahoe, the machine seems artless, superfluous and out of place in this current time. In 2009, Thiebaud allows the slot machines to exist in his mind as they would in 1962; the 5 cents now seem impossibly inexpensive, yet the machine still remains shiny and new. In all of his object paintings, Thiebaud maintains the hyper-real gloss and sheen that could only exist in his mental image of the object. Thiebaud’s object transports the viewer to that moment where the reality could have been that good and the anticipation that challenging to endure. Although dramatically different from his confectionaries, Penny Slot provides the same sense of delayed gratification and eagerness for a reward from it. You can keep playing; each time you have renewed odds of success, so it is a constant reminder of the faith and belief of something good to come, just for another nickel.