"People say painting's dead. Fine. It's dead for you. I don't care. Painting is alive for me. Painting is life for me"
(Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., San Francisco, 2000, p. 41).
The bold sculptural forms and brittle gravitas of Wayne Thiebaud's Jelly Rolls (For Morton) make the painting a pure pleasure for the eyes. Depicting a single row of three delicately spaced rolls with sensual strokes of paint and a rich palette of low contrast color, the painting is classic Thiebaud. The modest subject of jelly rolls is transformed by the artist into a masterful exploration of color and form.
Since the 1950s, Thiebaud was fascinated by the pictorial possibilities of still-life subjects drawn from everyday American life, such as the cakes, pies and confections displayed in windows across the country. There is a democratic aura to these objects of middle-class consumption, both in their accessible nature and in the way they stand in rows in an individualized yet egalitarian manner. Thiebaud presaged Pop art's obsession with consumer products and Minimalism's fixation on modular repetition--indeed, at his enormously successful debut at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1962, Andy Warhol was one of his many admirers. Yet Thiebaud did not share Pop's challenges to traditional mediums of art making, and instead maintained an independent course in his devotion to the aesthetic delights of oil paint. In Jelly Rolls (For Morton), Thiebaud's jelly rolls are strategically deployed in a manner reminiscent of Donald Judd's sculptural works for whom modular form and repetition were essential--though their artistic achievements seem disparate there is an uncanny thread of connectivity.
Like Chardin, Thiebaud's painted meditations on humble objects such as Jelly Rolls (for Morton) reveals an extraordinary sensitivity to the beauty of light and surfaces. Under each painter's brush, there is a kind of alchemy of the everyday into surprising aesthetic richness. Thiebaud admired an eclectic gamut of painters, from Chardin to Mondrian, and observed that "each distinctive painter has his own brush dance" (Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., San Francisco, 2000, p. 48). Friends with Willem de Kooning since the 1950s, Thiebaud admired his supple handling of paint and inventive coloration. De Kooning reminded him of the primacy of his chosen material, "that painting was a lot more important than art" (Ibid., 48), as Thiebaud recalled. He also enjoyed Giorgio Morandi's quiet distillations of geometric objects, with their slowly applied brushstrokes that emphasize an extended process of looking.
One of the signatures of Thiebaud's brushwork--that he discovered accidentally then brilliantly manipulated--is the effect of halation around the contours of his objects created through the use of contrasting colors. This is beautifully apparent along the sharp horizontals in the present painting, and especially in the icy blue shadows that are tinged on their borders by touches of orange. Thiebaud further used the texture of his differently paced brushstrokes to play off one another for added articulation; even in the open color-fields, where fluid strokes heighten the sensuality of the surface. In Jelly Rolls (For Morton) the Thiebaud is in top form and has brilliantly infused his otherwise mundane subject with a sense of drama and purpose; a seemingly impossible achievement that can only be the product of a master at the height of his powers.