"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"—Wayne Thiebaud
(W. Thiebaud quoted in S. A. Nash, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, San Francisco, 2000, p. 15).
"Thiebaud's still-life paintings, and particularly those of food, were his first mature works and they rapidly built his reputation after his landmark exhibition at Allan Stone Gallery in New York in 1962" (S. McGough, Thiebaud Selects Thiebaud, Sacramento, 1996, p. 4).
Widely known for his earnest renderings of sweet treats and softly-lit dessert cases, Wayne Thiebaud’s career has spanned several decades and serves as a telling illustration of commonplace objects and their place in a wider American consumer culture. A particularly vibrant example, Three Candied Apples continues the artist’s inquiry into the sugary surfaces of everyday life started in the early 1960s. His consistent exploration of apparently innocuous subjects leaves room for a deeper conversation about the place of representative painting in the latter half of the 20th century and how the most traditional art medium has been continuously reinvented to stay relevant. Not merely illustrative still lifes, Thiebaud’s tableaux exhibit an eloquent merging of Pop sensibilities with Realist subjects and painterly finesse.
Glistening in their confectionary purity, the three titular apples gleam with a dark red sheen. Placed starkly against a two-tone blue ground, their cerulean and navy backdrop divides the canvas neatly in half while casting contrasting reflections in the glossy exterior of the candy treats. Each apple is enticingly rendered in varying shades of competing orange, yellow, blue, green, and a healthy dose of crimson. Their sticks stand at attention, but are portrayed in a decidedly less terrestrial manner than the desserts. Existing as diffused strokes of glowing color against the dark blue of their environment and the lacquer sheen of the fruit, they pull at the anchored apples and coax them from reality. Learned by observing modernist masters like Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh, Thiebaud’s mastery of color is especially prevalent in the signature halation of his subjects. He noted: "I began to heighten the 'edge effect' and also to re-echo the shape around the edges to give more energy to the image. The longer you stare at an object the more pulsation it emits and the color has to have what Matisse referred to as 'expanding propensities'" (W. Thiebaud quoted in "Wayne Thiebaud: An Interview," J. Coplans, (ed.), Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Pasadena Art Museum, 1968, p. 32). Using contrasting colors at the edges of his objects, he was able to create both an illusionistic sense of depth as well as a ghostly glow like a restaurant’s neon sign through the San Francisco fog.
Breaking onto the scene in 1962 with an exhibition at Allan Stone Gallery in New York, Thiebaud anticipated Pop Art’s infatuation with the everyday objects and images of American life. New Yorker art critic Adam Gropnik noted: “His method…has the effect not of eliminating the Pop resonance of his subjects but of slowing down and chastening the associations they evoke, so that a host of ambivalent feelings—nostalgic and satiric and elegiac—can come back later, calmed down and contemplative: enlightened” (A. Gopnik, “The Art World: Window Gazing,” in New Yorker, April 29, 1991, p. 80). Andy Warhol was an early admirer, and the de facto leader of Pop Art’s penchant for repetition can be seen mirrored in Thiebaud’s own use of multiple subjects and consistent questioning of easily relatable objects. However, where Warhol’s works commented directly on the consumerist tendencies of the American people by repurposing commercial silkscreen techniques and appropriating graphic designs and imagery, works like Three Candied Apples show Thiebaud’s insistence on exploring the physicality of paint along with recognizable tropes.
Starting his career as a commercial artist, Thiebaud’s early artistic vocabulary was decidedly object-based. His years creating cartoons, first for Disney and then as an illustrator in Long Beach, California, afforded him a grab bag of imagery based in American consumer society. Having spent nearly a decade practicing this trade between California and New York, Thiebaud eventually found himself teaching at an art school on the West Coast while simultaneously befriending some of the leaders of the avant garde like Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Franz Kline. Although he never submerged himself fully into Abstract Expressionism, these experiences pulled him from the stylized depiction of objects and introduced a more painterly, forthright approach to his work. The artist noted: "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" (W. Thiebaud quoted in S. A. Nash, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, San Francisco, 2000, p. 15). Three Candied Apples is a telling result of this inquiry as the objects exhibit a weight and presence that belies their flat rendering. By approaching representational still life with the eye of a formalist, Thiebaud breathed new life into diner counters lined with pastel pie slices and lustrous candied apples.
Working for much of his life in California, the thick, gestural impasto Thiebaud employs is akin to that of his colleagues, the Bay Area Figurative painters like Elmer Bischoff and David Park. Like them, his approach to coarsely rendered subjects that eschew pure color in favor of richly variegated strokes gives his seemingly simple subjects a richness and complexity that hints at something beyond the visible. Often considered a Pop artist for his affinity for depicting iconic Americana in the form of lunch counters, diner displays, and other bits of sentimentality, Thiebaud also inhabits a more conservative realist realm like the work of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Andrew Wyeth. It is this interstitial space where canvases like Three Candied Apples exist that make them such a poignant illustration of America’s self-aware nostalgia.