WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)
WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)
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Property from the Family of Nina Van Rensselaer
WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)

Yo-Yo's

Details
WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)
Yo-Yo's
incised with the artist’s signature and date ‘Thiebaud 1962’ (lower left); signed thrice, titled and dated 'Thiebaud "Yo-Yos" Thiebaud '62 Thiebaud' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
11 x 12 in. (27.9 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1962.
Provenance
Nina Van Rensselaer and Robert Kelly, Sacramento, acquired directly from the artist, circa 1964
By descent from the above to the present owner
Exhibited
Pasadena Art Museum; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Cincinnati, The Contemporary Arts Center, San Francisco Museum of Art and Salt Lake City, Utah Museum of Fine Arts of the University of Utah, Wayne Thiebaud, February-October 1968, p. 56, no. 15.
California State University, Long Beach, Wayne Thiebaud: Survey of Painting, 1950-72, November-December 1972, n.p., no. 14.
Phoenix Art Museum; Oakland Museum; Los Angeles, University of Southern California Art Galleries; Des Moines Art Center, Wayne Thiebaud: Survey 1947-1976, September 1976-May 1977, p. 92, no. 30.

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Lot Essay

Crafted with decadent shades of oil paint, Wayne Thiebaud’s Yo-Yos from 1962 is a visual and sensual delight. The work intricately illustrates diagonal rows of yo-yos, each with its own bright-colored design. Each yo-yo is treated with unique attention. Brazen stars, playful swirls, and multi-colored bullseyes line the top of the toys, creating an enticing variety of patterns. Viscous white brushstrokes curve around the base of each object, drawing the viewer’s eye towards their carefully illustrated form. Thiebaud began painting objects such as yo-yos in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an exercise in composition, resulting in a series of still-life paintings. Throughout history, artists like the Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Jean-Baptiste Chardin have constantly used the practice of still-life painting to hone their skills. In many European still lifes, tables overflow with opulent spreads of exotic fruits, fine wines, and blossoming flowers. Preserved in time and cast in dramatic chiaroscuro, the subjects of these paintings never age or wilt. Rather, they serve as an eternal testimony to the wealth of a bygone era.
Thiebaud’s expressed his admiration for these painters, remarking that “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 now see are not going to be around forever. We are merely used to the idea that things do not change” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Nash and A. Gopnik, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh cat. Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 19). Infused with nostalgia, Thiebaud’s own still life paintings pay homage to the material abundance of the 1950s and 60s. By focusing on the mass-manufactured yo-yo toy, Thiebaud elevates everyday objects and redefines the still life genre. In the present work, Thiebaud draws attention to the beauty that exists in ordinary objects by showing the variety they can have sitting side by side with nothing to distract the viewer’s gaze. From a seemingly ordinary object, Thiebaud is able to tease out loaded meaning and hidden visual potential. In what he calls the “isolation of the object,” Thiebaud explains “the space inference that I want is one of isolation, ultra-clear, bright, air-conditioned atmosphere that might be sort of stirred up around the objects and echo their presence is what I aim for. For this reason, uninterrupted single-colored backgrounds are used, and this allows the brush marks to be seen more clearly and play their role” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in R. Teagle, Wayne Thiebaud 1958-1968, exh. cat. Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Davis, 2018, p. 23).
Acquired directly from the artist by Nina Van Rensselaer of Sacramento, who considered Wayne a mentor to her, Yo-Yos has been passed down in the same private collection for six decades. A student of ceramic art, formally trained at the University of California, Davis, Nina had an uncanny and eccentric eye. It was at the UC Davis Art department in the mid-1960s where she enjoyed creative freedom and befriended West Coast artists, such Robert Arneson, David Gilhooly, William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud. She recalls of Thiebaud’s work from the 1960s, “[h]e would tell you that they were not Pop Art; however, I think there was some influence. He certainly was painting an object, and it was an iconic object, and I think that’s what he meant it to be... See he had these little halation lines… he was very excited about those always. We had to work very hard on our white. But we also had to do the halations” (N. Van Rensselaer quoted in T. Hanlon’s The Frog in the Pond, 2017).
In the present work, yellow, red, and pink yo-yos rest in orderly rows, similar to the formation of Thiebaud’s rows of confections. The toys gleam from an unseen light source, as cool blue shadows pop against green borders. On his formal fascination with the plastic toy, Thiebaud has said: “The cakes, the hors d’oeuvres and the yoyos all relate to one another because of the common surface decoration. The pinwheels, bars, crosses, stars and other geometric and heraldic devices are shared in common. I have no idea why they are used, but they are fascinating nonetheless. I got tired of painting cakes, and yoyos have a different look… they are split in the middle and flatter in shape. They posed some different formal problems” (W. Thiebaud quoted in J. Coplans, Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Pasadena Art Museum, 1968, p. 34). Using a method called halation, Thiebaud incorporated unconventional and often contrasting colors into his paintings to capture the feeling of each object, rather than their exact appearance.
His vibrant color palettes and focus on objects of consumerism connected him to Pop Art contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, as well as to the pioneering artists that came before him, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Similarly to Warhol, Thiebaud began his career in advertising. The artist worked on publications such as Mens Wear and Womens Wear Daily, and as an advertiser for Rexall Drug Company. Thiebaud’s tendency to display objects in an orderly, Pop-like repetition, reflects his background in commercial art.
However, Thiebaud distinguished himself from Pop artists by painting objects with an earnest sentiment. Rather than criticize consumerism, Thiebaud channels the ideals of American abundance that artistic forebears such as Norman Rockwell championed. His work conjures the simple childhood pleasures of sitting at a diner counter, indulging in sugary confections, or in this case, playing with a favorite toy. From rows of yo-yos to the glowing arcade in Four Pinball Machines, Thiebaud’s modest subjects and lively color palettes conjure a sincere and cheerful nostalgia for everyday America.
The year 1962 was a pivotal moment for the artist: in April, he opened his first New York solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery. After having been rejected by every other dealer that he had approached, Thiebaud embarked on a relationship with Stone that would last over four and a half decades. On the heels of critical acclaim from the exhibition, Thiebaud was invited to participate in Sidney Janis’s group show, New Realists. It was there that his striking pictures attracted the interest of critics, and institutional and commercial success followed. Included in the important traveling exhibition in the late 1970s, Wayne Thiebaud: Survey 1947-1976, Yo-Yos hung alongside other iconic, early masterpieces from 1962, including Four Pinball Machines, Delicatessen Counter, in the Menil Collection in Houston, Candy Counter, in the Anderson Collection at Stanford University, Jackpot Machine, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Around the Cake, at the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas.
Over a career spanning seven decades, Thiebaud developed a reputation as one of the foremost proponents of figurative painting. His paintings capture the emotional resonance of a bygone age, turning ordinary and everyday objects into objects of quiet beauty. His bountiful paintings of diner counters, toys, and row-upon-row of sumptuous pastries capture the prosperity of postwar America as much as Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottles and tins of Campbell’s Soup. Yet his meticulous painterly style helped to revive what had previously been the staid genre of still life before Thiebaud took hold of it in beginning in the early 1960s. Thiebaud continued to paint before he passed away in 2021 at age 101. He is remembered for his charmingly rich color palettes and precise concentration on everyday items. The artist once remarked in an interview “I'm delighted when people are able to smile at the work, and I hope it has a sense of humor and joyousness” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Larsen, “Oral history interview with Wayne Thiebaud, 2001 May 17-18”, Smithsonian Archives of American Art). Yo-Yos depicts one of the artist’s iconic subjects, imbuing the work with the joyousness that characterized Thiebaud’s life and career.

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