Painted in 1962, the same year as the artist’s first solo show in New York, Wayne Thiebaud’s Cake Rows exemplifies the sense of American prosperity and nostalgia that defines the artist’s practice. Beloved for decades for his depictions of delicious cakes and confectionary, alongside other uniquely American objects such as pinball machines and the streets of sunny California, Thiebaud has captivated audiences for over fifty years with his unique ability to capture the true essence of what he paints. Indeed, like the artists whose careers burgeoned on the other side of the country simultaneously, such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Thiebaud is instrumental to art history by elevating the objects of his viewers’ everyday lives into something far grander. Yet while his New York counterparts serve us these items with a sardonic twist, Thiebaud offers the ability to revel in childhood reminiscence and to luxuriate in life’s more simple pleasures.
In Cake Rows, with its luscious paint application and rich use of color, three varieties of cakes are laid out in strict rows against a minimal background. Receding into the distance, they hint at the endless supply that seemed to exist in diners and kitchens across the country. This particular painting is an exemplary example of the artist’s skillful paint handling, which allows his subjects to be condensed to their essential elements while preventing them from becoming merely flat depictions of real-world objects. Instead, these cakes appear before the viewer, tantalizing and ready to be picked up and bitten into. Indeed, one of Thiebaud’s strongest abilities as a painter is his capability to manipulate paint and transform it into whatever material he is trying to depict, ranging from frosting to shiny metal. This is most readily apparent in the chocolate cake in the lower right of the composition, with its luxuriously thick impasto resultant from the buildup of orange, blue, and brown hues. This subtle accumulation of color does not immediately register with the eye, but on close inspection it becomes evident that it is instrumental to Thiebaud’s practice, extending outwards as far as the edges of the canvas.
At the same time, Cake Rows is grounded in its subject’s most basic compositional elements. While paint coalesces to create frosting, it does so in distinctly rectangular forms. What’s more, these richly applied, colorful cakes, are set against a background that is empty to the point of quasi-abstraction. Solid bands of cream and sky blue denote the background, dividing up the composition between the table and background. Yet the picture plane is flattened to such a degree that this distinction could be easily overlooked, marked only by the subtle buildup of color in the band of orange and green that cuts across the center of the canvas, leaving a sense of quiet contemplation and a palpable sense of looking in place of illusionistic realism.
This tendency towards a reduced, essential depiction of form stems primarily from the artist’s early career as an illustrator. Thiebaud worked in the realm of commercial art, even briefly apprenticing at the Walt Disney Studios, before gravitating to a full-time career as an artist in the 1950s. Then, as he says, “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 place and really be very clear about it. I picked things like pies and cake—things based upon simple shapes like triangles and circles—and tried to orchestrate them” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Nash, “Unbalancing Acts: Wayne Thiebaud Reconsidered,” in Wayne Thiebaud: A Painting’s Retrospective, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2000, p. 15).
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Thiebaud’s paintings of foodstuffs reached their mature form. These were then exhibited in his first solo show in New York at the Allan Stone Gallery, and Thiebaud was quickly propelled to critical acclaim with a highly successful show and an acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art. Stone would be Thiebaud’s dealer for over forty years, skillfully placing works like Cake Rows into notable collections, such as that of Leon Kraushar. During his lifetime, Kraushar had amassed one of the greatest collections of Pop Art ever assembled. Along with Cake Rows, Kraushar and his wife acquired a number of early and important works from the likes of Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and other artists of their generation. In fact, Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic Nurse (1964) was another highlight of Kraushar’s collection. It was this keen eye for the very best of the cutting edge that led Kraushar, along with his contemporaries Robert and Ethel Scull, to help define and nurture the art of their time.
What this present work makes clear is that Thiebaud’s art is about more than mere depictions of consumer goods. It is about a celebration and contemplation of life, of color, of painting in its many forms. This is an exemplary early work by the artist, a snapshot of a moment in time when the work that would sustain him for the rest of his career finally came to fruition in its mature form. Thiebaud and his work tie us together by the simple treats that we can all enjoy, creating a unique blend of realism and abstraction, in which personal remembrance and latent symbolism intertwine. In many ways, he is the archetypal American artist, and it is thanks to the subtlety and focus of Thiebaud’s draughtsmanship and the vivacity of his coloring that these overlooked commonplaces of daily
life live on in elevated form today.