WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920-2021)
WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920-2021)
WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920-2021)
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WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920-2021)
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WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920-2021)

Little Deli

WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920-2021)
Little Deli
incised with the artist's signature and date 'Thiebaud 2001' (upper right); signed again and dated again 'Thiebaud 2001' (on the reverse); titled and dated again '"LITTLE DELI" 2001' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
48 x 36 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 2001.
Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco
Faggionato Fine Art, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2010
London, Faggionato Fine Art, Wayne Thiebaud, October 2009-January 2010.
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A reprisal of one of his most iconic themes, Wayne Thiebaud’s Little Deli celebrates and aggrandizes the cakes, pies, sandwiches and salad bowls of the classic American deli counter. It was also one of the artist’s earliest mature themes, having first been depicted in 1961, and gracing the wall of his now legendary one-man show at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York one year later. In Little Deli, Thiebaud creates a sort of picture within a picture, using the rectangular format of the deli case to mimic the format of the painting itself. Inside one finds a retrospective array of Thiebaud’s most cherished subjects: the club sandwich with its decorative cocktail olive, and the abundant bowls of salad, all beautifully rendered in vivid color harmonies and beautiful, lush brushwork. In his reinvention of the traditional still-life genre to reflect the consumerism of postwar America, the deli counter engages in a sophisticated dialogue with art history while also capturing a quintessentially American way of life.

Thiebaud had a unique ability for developing the potential, hidden meaning of everyday objects. Arranged in a vintage deli case, his common American foods act as the vessels for his reverential painterly treatment. Thiebaud lovingly delineates the contours of each object with a thickly-loaded brush, alternating colors in a veritable rainbow. Glistening greens, luminous blues, bright yellows, red and pink bring the objects electrifyingly to life. The sandwiches and pies are arranged in neat rows and illuminated as if by a theatrical spotlight; they sparkle and glisten before the viewer. By isolating these objects against a beautiful blue background, Thiebaud also lends the objects a quiet inner power, imparting a gleaming realism to the piece.

The artist was expert at creating a mysterious kind of emotional realism that finds parallels in the work of Giorgio Morandi and Edward Hopper. In Little Deli, this is heightened by the rectangular format of the porcelain deli counter, with its pane of clear glass and a view of the refrigerated contents within. The glass acts as a screen through which the viewer peers, and the objects inside are highlighted and bathed in a glowing light. This subtle yet clever technique also echoes the perimeter of the painting itself. In doing so, it calls to mind the act of seeing and breaks down the “fourth wall” between the viewer, the artist, and the artwork.

Thiebaud began his career as a commercial artist, working for the Rexall Drug Company during the 1950s. He even had a short apprenticeship with the Walt Disney Company as a teenager, where he drew “in-betweens” – cells of Disney characters that would be animated into cartoons. Thiebaud recognized the visual impact of commercial artists’ visual strategy, in their use of blank backgrounds to isolate the product and quick, decisive lines to delineate them. This might be the closest that Thiebaud came to being a Pop artist. Like Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans and Coke bottles, and Roy Lichtenstein’s black-and-white paintings of diamond rings and cans of hairspray, Thiebaud painted the homogenized consumer products that symbolized the optimism and abundance of postwar America. All three artists had trained as draftsmen, and both Warhol and Thiebaud worked as commercial artists in their early careers. Thiebaud’s paintings, however, are more concerned with a kind of honest "down-to-earth" realism, a celebration of the ordinary moments of everyday life. This connects him to a storied painterly tradition stretching back to the seventeenth-century and including such revered artists as Johannes Vermeer and Jean-Siméon Chardin. “His work is about celebrating the joy of living,” the artist’s friend and dealer Allan Stone once explained (A. Stone, as interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning, May 10, 2008; accessible via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI_QJ5D9Qm8).

Thiebaud’s first mature paintings of deli counters date back to 1961. That year, Thiebaud began to paint a series of ordinary objects that he isolated against unadorned backgrounds. He painted cakes, pies and large-format paintings of deli counters using crisp, bright colors. Also in 1961, Thiebaud visited New York hoping to find a gallery that would be interested in representing his work. He wandered up Madison avenue, only to be rejected by each gallery he approached. By the time he reached the location of a new gallerist named Allan Stone at 86th and Madison, Thiebaud’s spirits had thoroughly dampened. Stone, though, had found something intriguing in Thiebaud’s paintings, and the following year, he gave him his first one-man show. That proved to be an astonishing success. Every work in the exhibit sold, and several museums acquired paintings, including the Museum of Modern Art. Thiebaud’s iconic imagery was established there on the walls of Allan Stone’s gallery; in the cake slices, rows of pie, and deli counters, Thiebaud would find the imagery to which he would dedicate the next six decades of his career.

In Little Deli, Thiebaud furthers his celebration of ordinary American food, in a continuation of a life-long reprisal of his celebrated subject matter. With an undiminished agility and commitment, Thiebaud added more complexity and nuance to these later paintings even though the imagery stayed the same. Looking back, Thiebaud would explain, “It’s because I hadn’t seen anyone paint those things, which I looked upon and found quite interesting and beautiful. If you really look at a lemon meringue pie or a beautiful cake, it’s kind of a work of art, and that’s what attracted me. And when you put them in rows, you have the ability to orchestrate them, to imbue them with what you hope is some extra interesting looking forms” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Cascone, “Enjoy It When You Have It, But Don’t Have Too Much,” Artnet News, November 13, 2020).

In 1962, Thiebaud wrote, “The space inference that I want is one of isolation: ultraclear, bright, air-conditioned atmosphere that might be sort of stirred up around the objects and echo their presence” (W. Thiebaud, “Is a Lollipop Tree Worth Painting?,” San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, July 15, 1962, p. 29). Indeed, it is this sort of ultraclear, air-conditioned atmosphere that Thiebaud has created in Little Deli, and which remains one of the hallmarks of his work. Part of this has to do with the artist’s unique capacity for rendering objects with colorful silhouettes. He discovered this technique quite by accident. As he spent hours in his studio closely observing the appearance of things, Thiebaud observed a new visual phenomenon – that an object was not actually delineated by a single black line, but rather surrounded with a kind of “halo” effect where several colors were present. This “halation” is beautifully apparent in Little Deli, particularly around the outlines of the pert little olives, the salad bowls, and the rounded edges of the deli case itself. As Thiebaud’s trademark motif, it imbues his paintings with a kind of flickering, hyper-real quality that makes his objects come alive whilst also being simply a joy to look at.

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