In River Channels, painted in 2003, Wayne Thiebaud assembles rich passages of colors that rhythmically flow together to create a veritable tapestry, reconstructing his version of the flat farmlands of the Sacramento River Delta in California. Bold lines alternately converge and diverge, leading the viewer's gaze across the entire surface of the painting. Thiebaud's skillful use of contrasting rich and pastel tones perfectly captures the tranquil farmland either at dusk or dawn, as the miniscule trees cast remarkably long shadows across the landscape. Painted at a moment when Thiebaud was reinvestigating the place in which he lived, still captivated by his surroundings, he was renewing the landscape genre for himself and his audience.
Thiebaud imagines his rivers and fields in River Channels as an elaborate array of pattern, color and contrasting components that reveal the complexity of his visualization of the landscape. Discussing his larger body of work inspired by the Sacramento River Delta, Thiebaud stated, "I was intrigued by what I could do to try to get some kind of image or self-relationship, which I hadn't seen so much...As a consequence, I tried to steal every kind of idea--Western, Eastern--and the use of everything I could think of--atmospheric perspective, size differences, color differences, overlapping, exaggeration, linear perspective, planal and sequential recessions--and to do that with the kind of vision I talked about before, with as many ways of seeing in the same picture--clear forms, hazy, squinting, glancing, staring and even a sort of inner seeing" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Nash, Wayne Thiebaud: A Painting Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 33). Evident by this statement, Thiebaud is engrossed in the transformation of the actual landscapes as it is transposed between first, his observation of the space, then by his own artistic interpretation, and ultimately by how the viewer sees it as a finished painting. Taking on various forms of abstraction and realism, Thiebaud leads the viewer on a journey across the surface of the canvas, all in order to elucidate the actual experience of witnessing the vastness of the Sacramento River Delta.
A modern master of all three classic genres of painting--still-life, portraiture and landscape--Thiebaud consistently captures a heartfelt American-ness in his work, regardless of which genre he engages in. His magnificent landscapes recall the monumentality of Albert Bierstadt and the Impressionist stylization of Claude Monet, yet Thiebaud remains entirely independent from any one source. His strength is his ability to draw from a number of foundations while never definitively settling on one, and rather prefers to employ his impressive understanding of art history and styles in order to best create his desired effect. In the present lot, Thiebaud calls upon a myriad of sources, ranging from Japanese landscapes that effectively tilt up the picture plane, Western utilization of multi-point perspective, as well as the conventions of his contemporaries, such as Richard Diebenkorn's broad abstract patches of color. Through his profound formal abilities and impeccable eye, Thiebaud adapts, reworks and reinvents the landscape genre, capturing a specific sense of time and place, while simultaneously realizing certain universal elements of the tranquility of the natural landscape.
Regardless of his chosen subject, Thiebaud assiduously imagines and reimagines the way in which he paints, often choosing a variation on the same theme, allowing it to continue to change, develop and mature. Just as Monet relentlessly sought to capture the changing atmosphere in the French countryside in his Haystacks series, so too is Thiebaud continually inspired to come back to the vast alluvial fields of the Sacramento Valley. Decades after his first studies of this landscape, Thiebaud renews his fascination and excitement for this subject, depicting the colors more intensely, becoming more adventurous with his use of patterns and perspective, and offers a true celebration of color and light. Through a combination of direct observations, personal memories and study of his earlier pastoral landscapes, River Channels becomes more than a singular visual record for the artist, but an amalgamation of the subjective conception of the place, transposed to canvas. While explaining the differences between his early landscapes and those painted more recently, Thiebaud stated that the earlier landscapes "represented found images that were interesting or beautiful...the missing element, however, seemed to be the duplication of natural forces into the paint itself. I no longer wish to invest the landscape with total pictorial content, but, if at all possible, I want to replicate those natural forces into the nature of the paint...I would be able to give the painting, in terms of abstraction and compositional power, the same kind of internalized structure of the nature of the landscape" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in A. Marchal-Workman, "Wayne Thiebaud: Beyond the Cityscapes," Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 1, no. 2, Autumn 1987, p. 39).
River Channels is a prime example of Thiebaud's work that succeeds earlier endeavors as he demonstrates mastery of his materials and his subject matter, and presents a dynamic synthesis of aesthetics and form. River Channels is not simply the artist's rendering of the Sacramento River Delta farmland; it is the pinnacle of his exploration into the very nature and essence of this location and the way it existed for him at this moment in time. Thiebaud further expands beyond the established realm of Realism through the way in which he rethinks the possibilities of a composition. "[An artist] can enliven a construct of paint by doing any number of manipulations and additions to what he sees," Thiebaud once said, which made it possible for representational work to be "both abstract and real simultaneously" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Nash, op cit., p. 20). Through a lifetime of contemplating and reimagining one of his most beloved themes, Thiebaud changes the way the landscape is perceived and envisioned with shapes, gestures and structures signature and unique to his visual lexicon, allowing reductive abstraction to emerge, revealing the fundamental truths of the painting.