Wayne Thiebaud’s Toweling Off is a masterful painting that incorporates the best of the artist’s figurative and still life practices. Painted in 1968, this mysterious and beautiful rendition of a young woman in tennis apparel holding a towel to her face evokes a history of half-length portraiture, and draws comparisons to a range of works from old masters such as Jan van Eyck to American artists such as Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent.
Not seen in public since it was lent to the important 1985 Wayne Thiebaud retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Toweling Off was acquired by the present owners from Allan Stone Gallery in 1974 and has resided in the same private collection ever since. It represents a culmination of the shift in Thiebaud’s attention to the human figure and the figure’s relationship with objects in the early 1960s. Following Thiebaud’s immensely successful debut show at Allan Stone Gallery in 1962, the artist received a grant “to paint life-sized figures” from the UC Davis Creative Arts Research Foundation. This grant allowed Thiebaud to leave his teaching position at UC Davis for the 1964-1965 academic year and focus solely on the new body of work. Many important figurative paintings from the period of 1963-1968 reside in prominent museum collections, such as Girl with Ice Cream Cone (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) and Supine Woman (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Thiebaud has since declared that figure painting is “significantly the most important study the painter can pursue” (R. Teagle, Wayne Thiebaud: 1958-1968, 2018, p. 38).
Toweling Off is unique within Thiebaud’s body of work in that equal attention is given to the object and the figure. The towel becomes one with the subject, and its relationship to the woman takes on a metaphysical quality. By veiling the subject’s face, the viewer is left to wonder at her emotional state and appearance. Is she elated, or exhausted; smiling, or sorrowful? The paint is effectively an enigma, and Thiebaud has done wonders in freezing what is a fleeting moment of introspection on the tennis court. The painterly handling of the towel is so striking and illusionistic that it appears to challenge the painted draperies and headdresses of 16th century Flemish painters. In terms of composition, the placement of the towel draws the viewer’s eye down into the shadow created by the linen, where one expects to see a face. The viewer’s eye is then compelled to travel up along the voluminous folds of the towel and to the delightful handling of the figure’s hair and headband. Unlike other figurative paintings by Thiebaud, in which the sitters can appear stiff, Toweling Off displays a remarkable suppleness of character and form.
With Hopper, an artist whom Thiebaud greatly admires, Thiebaud shares a sense of isolation and introspection. His figures are often presented alone, in the clean and brilliant spaces that recall Hopper’s sparse interiors. Toweling Off is an excellent example of the introspective moment frozen in time. In real speed, an athlete wiping their face is a second of respite and reflection, and usually a moment to reflect on the action that has just occurred. Here, Thiebaud captures that moment and extends it indefinitely.
[Figure painting is] significantly the most important study the painter can pursue.”
Toweling Off was originally illustrated as one of four Wimbledon tennis paintings featured in a 1968 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine. Two of these four paintings remained in Allan Stone’s collection for more than 40 years. The third, Wimbledon Trophy, entered the Rhode Island School of Design museum collection in 1969. The fourth, Toweling Off, the largest of the grouping, is by far the most impressive. As opposed to the other three, Toweling Off is stripped of its setting, to the point that the figure is not immediately recognizable as a tennis player. The subject is situated in the same abstract, open space that surrounds Thiebaud’s pies and pinball machines, and is similarly rendered with the intense illumination and luscious thickness of paint. Tennis almost becomes a footnote in the midst of Thiebaud’s intense study of light and materiality. In particular the three-dimensional quality of the towel, and the woman’s hair and skirt, are a tour-de-force in painterly volume. A beautiful array of color outlines the subject’s supple shoulders, and highlights of color coming through her hair indicate its delicate transparency.
Unlike Thiebaud’s still lifes, his figure paintings were almost always painted from life with a model in the studio. Using an immensely powerful 3200° Kelvin photoflood light, which effectively acted like the sun, Thiebaud would position his model against a white photographic backdrop and light them. This lighting effect is remarkably rendered in Toweling Off, and the luminous result is unique to Thiebaud’s best paintings: simultaneous warmth and coolness. As Rachel Teagle, Founding Director of the Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis writes, “These figure paintings are the apotheosis of Thiebaud’s effort to merge sign and referent, to get paint as close as possible to what it represents. By 1968, when his first mid-career retrospective began to tour the nation, his mature style was fully developed, and soon he would move on to different subjects altogether” (R. Teagle, Wayne Thiebaud: 1958-1968, 2018, p. 38). Toweling Off was painted at the pinnacle of Thiebaud’s mature style, and it is surely one of his most captivating and intriguing compositions, one that unmistakably stands alone in his oeuvre.