One of the largest canvases painted during a pivotal period of his career, Four Pinball Machines (1962) helped to establish Wayne Thiebaud as one of the most innovative artists of his generation. Throughout his career, the artist has sought to prove himself as a painter. Without formal training, he began his working life as a commercial artist (he worked for a time at the Walt Disney studios), and eventually he developed a distinctive form of figurative realism that stood apart from what is traditionally thought of as Pop Art. Like his contemporaries on the East Coast, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Thiebaud sought inspiration from everyday objects, but unlike his New York counterparts, he rendered them with a tactile brushstroke and a keen sense of color. Thiebaud was as concerned with the challenge of how to convey color, space and light as he was with the physical rendering of the forms themselves; in this row of pinball machines he renders his subject matter with brushstrokes of electric color portraying them in complex detail. From a seemingly ordinary object, Thiebaud is able to tease out loaded meaning and hidden visual potential. He remarked, “[My subject matter] was a genuine sort of experience that came out of my life, particularly the American world in which I was privileged to be. It just seemed to be the most genuine thing which I had done” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in Steve A. Nash, op. cit., p. 18).
Across the center of this monumental canvas Thiebaud paints a row of colorful pinball machines, lined up as if standing to attention. Rendered in the artist’s signature precisionist style, tall slender legs support the body of the machines, with their kickers, slingshots, bells, and flashing lights all poised to spring into action once the player pulls back the pin to release the shiny stainless steel ball. We get a tantalizing glimpse of the maze through which these balls travel through the carefully angled glass top that encases the body of the machines; a vibrant red flipper here, a sturdy blue bumper there. The machines are themselves painted in a visually striking manner, decorated in a series of dramatic, vibrant red, yellow, and orange geometric forms. The stars and rows of jagged points all denote movement—the frenetic energy of buttons pushed and levers pulled as players’ hands become a blur once the game gets underway. Then, standing proud at the top of the machines are the ‘backglasses’—usually filled with a combination of high keyed cartoon designs and flashing lights but here, in a sly departure from reality, Thiebaud mines not popular culture, but the art historical canon as he depicts what appears to be the painterly forms of Frank Stella’s Concentric Squares, Jasper Johns’s Targets, and Sol LeWitt’s early works. Thus, Four Pinball Machines becomes much more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane, it becomes a formal and conceptual investigation into the nature of painting itself.
Apart from his distinctive painterly style, one of the most striking aspects of Four Pinball Machines is Thiebaud’s bold use of perspective. With their foreshortened bodies and dramatic use of shadows, the machines in this painting are an early example of Thiebaud pressing his subject forward against the picture plane. His repudiation of the accepted rules of one- and two-point perspective (note the low ‘horizon’ line and the bodies of the pinball machines stopping short of the traditional vanishing point), allows Thiebaud to assert a new form of modernity in his work. Critic David Roth writes “a realist to the core. . . . what rescues [Thiebaud’s paintings] . . . from sentimentality is the fact that he eliminates illusionistic, spatial perspectives. That representation risks both illusion and sentimentality is at the core of an anxiety, surfacing here with a reassurance that the artist has ‘rescued’ himself from these presumed pitfalls” (D. Roth, quoted by M. Lovell, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, Fall 2017 [online]).
As a painter, Thiebaud has been interested in realism and particularly admires the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and Jean-Siméon Chardin, artists who both worked in the realist tradition. He has acknowledged a particular debt to Vermeer, whom he credits with helping him to realize the value of what he terms “protracted looking,” of looking at a painting for a long, long time. He considers Vermeer to be the master of capturing what he has termed “frozen time.” “It’s the difference between a glance and a stare,” he says, “When you look at a Vermeer for example, you realize that it is a stared time, which has taken a long, long time—and keeps on layering—another five minutes, another hour…three hours, and she’s still pouring the milk!” (W. Thiebaud, quoted by A. Maréchal-Workman, “Wayne Thiebaud: Beyond the Cityscapes,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1987), p. 45).
In Four Pinball Machines, this practice of “protracted looking” reveals a kaleidoscopic array of deliberate, colorful brushstrokes that combine to produce the finished Technicolor image. This can be seem most clearly in the dark shadows that fill the recesses on the underside of the pinball machines. What the eye would usually see as gloomy spaces devoid of light, through Thiebaud’s eyes we see a colorful array of blue, black, red, pink, orange and even green brushstrokes. The undulating edges and vibrant colors surrounding each form create an expressive energy, making the surface of the shapes feel real despite their stillness. Thiebaud claims that he developed his chromatic senses accidentally, having never been to art school. Instead, he took note of how painters such as Monet and van Gogh handled edges, using contrasting colors to highlight an object. Direct lighting techniques allowed Thiebaud to explore these halos: “…strong display lights have been developed which can do all kinds of goofey [sic] things … make an object cast colored shadows, change its local color before your eyes, glow and develop a halo” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: 1958-1968, p. 28).
This “halation”—as Thiebaud termed it—can also be seen in the artist’s renderings of contemporary paintings that act as the backglass of the machines. These appropriations would have contemporary when the artist painted Four Pinball Machines (Stella’s first concentric squares first appeared 1962, the same year that the present work was painted). Although living and working primarily in California, Thiebaud would have been acutely aware of the artistic developments happening on the opposite side of the country. The paintings of Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt would have been in stark contrast to the prevailing artistic ideologies of their time. This new form of abstraction was entirely removed from the gestural abstractions of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, heavily infused as they were with angst and emotion. In this sense, although Thiebaud’s work is often linked with stark formalism of Pop Art (an association with which the artist is never entirely happy), on many levels—such as his interest in the depiction of color, light, and space—it could be argued that his work is more about abstraction than anything else.
Alongside his rows of cakes, racks of ties, and delicatessen counters, Thiebaud’s pinball machines are an important part of the artist’s early body of work. He first started depicting the arcade games in 1956, with Pinball Machine, a highly abstracted mixed media painting that depicts a single machine alongside a gumball dispenser and a stool with a Coca-Cola bottle. Penny Machines followed in 1961, along with Star Pinball, from 1962, and Twin Jackpots, also from 1962. Of all his arcade game paintings though, Four Pinball Machines is by far the largest and most advanced composition in the series.
For something so seemingly innocuous and American, the pinball machine has a long and checkered history. They came of age during the Depression with the production of the first coin-operated machines, but until the first ‘flippers’ were added in 1947, pinball was a very different game, with players at the mercy of the random bounce of the ball. Soon players started gambling on the outcomes of games and operators would often encourage them by handing out prizes ranging from gum to jewelry to the winners. This began to draw the attention of religious groups and civic authorities who claimed that the machines were encouraging young people to steal coins, skip school and go hungry as they wasted their money during countless hours playing the arcades. In Four Pinball Machines, Thiebaud uses this checkered past to draws a parallel between the contemporary and controversial associations of the machines with the contemporary (and some might say) controversial nature of the paintings his contemporaries, which he astutely uses to form the backboards of the machines themselves.
1962, the year that Thiebaud painted Four Pinball Machines, was an important year for the artist. In April, he opened his first New York solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery. Stone was a dealer who was primarily known for his representation of work by the Abstract Expressionists; when Thiebaud arrived at his gallery, the dealer (who famously turned down Andy Warhol because he said he couldn’t draw) was immediately captivated by both Thiebaud’s compositional ability and his technical skill. After having been rejected by every other dealer he had approached, Thiebaud and Stone began what would become a professional relationship that would last over four and a half decades.
Following the critical success of his New York exhibition, later in the year he was invited to take part in a group show—New Realists—at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan. His unique paintings garnered the interest of critics and the artist began to receive favorable reviews in a number of influential publications including the New York Times, Artforum, Time, Newsweek, and ARTnews. Many of the other major paintings that Thiebaud completed during this important year are now in major museum collections including Delicatessen Counter (Menil Collection, Houston); Candy Counter (Anderson Collection at Stanford University); Jackpot Machine (Smithsonian American Art Museum); and Around the Cake (Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas).
While the device of the still-life has its inherent art historical connotations, Thiebaud updates these by his use of an inherently modern subject. Set against the plain background, the pinball machines reverberate with painterly vivacity. Thiebaud understood the visual impact of commercial artists’ treatment of their subjects, such as such blank backgrounds to isolate the product and quick, decisive lines to delineate them. His popular snapshots of American life meant he has become widely associated with the Pop movement but his work does not merely celebrate the consumerism of American society, it also captures the texture, light and shadows of Americana, whilst at the same time engaging the viewer in a symphony of color and vibrant brushwork.