Wayne Thiebaud’s individualism lies in the marriage of opposites within his works, namely the balance of representation and abstraction, fleshy surface and controlled composition, and seriousness and wit. The unique look of his food-themed works reflects a colorful contemporary American culture. Combining brash Americana and tradition, Thiebaud pays homage to Hopper, Mondrian, Chardin, Sargent, Morandi and Diebenkorn in his works and most notably in Sandwich. He has described his painting as a merger of the conceptual and the perceptual. Thiebaud expressed that the foods he painted were always depicted as prepared, not raw, “which mostly…has to do with some sort of ritualistic preoccupation…that interest in the way we ritualize the food, play around with it.” (Steve A. Nash, “Unbalancing Acts: Wayne Thiebaud Reconsidered” in Wayne Thiebaud, A Paintings Retrospective, Thames & Hudson, Inc., New York, 2000, p. 18).
Sandwich (1961) displays the fetishization of food in America in a celebratory manner. Unlike Pop Art which satirizes consumer culture, Sandwich evokes an honest appreciation of the American experience. “[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,” he said. (Ibid., p. 18).
Sandwich is an example of Thiebaud’s mature food works, which have become iconic in the art-historical canon. It is an embrace of food items that impressed Thiebaud as interesting in character and presence. The work showcases his experience in advertising design and leading affiliation with the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Sandwich exists as a portrait of American consumer culture, and suggests an interest in objective painting and the isolation of the object. Thiebaud also plays with symmetry, balance and color in this work. Similarly to the Bay Area Figurative artists and Impressionists, he experiments with the effects of light and color in Sandwich, as is illustrated by his use of blue to represent the sandwiches’ shadows. The soft pastel palette is also reminiscent of the Nabis’ works.
The modulated light and slow-moving strokes used to model Sandwich’s forms echoes the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. Although the brushwork is highly viscous, the individual forms are clearly defined. Thiebaud’s signature paint-handling style illustrates the rich and smooth dragging of paint that celebrates the luscious texture of oil. His brushstrokes transform into the very material being depicted, namely the glistening texture of the sandwich bread, spread, and condiments, an effect the artist refers to as “object transference” (Ibid., p. 17). The origins of Thiebaud’s thick brushwork can be traced to the works of Willem de Kooning, and Bay Area Figurative painters Richard Diebenkorn and David Park.
Thiebaud said that the sandwich subject matter he kept returning to holds an emotional and poetic resonance for him, for it related to the vernacular Americanism of his boyhood memories. “Most of [the objects] are fragments of actual experience…Those little vedute in fragmented circumstances were always poetic to me,” he explained. (Op. cit., p. 18). Thiebaud’s personal association with the subject matter in his paintings suggests that his past experiences such as his time working in restaurants and small stores, his home-cooked meals, and the foods he admired in small shops are embedded in his works assigning them a nostalgic American identity. In Sandwich, Thiebaud captures a staple of America that inevitably changed with time. “Commonplace objects are constantly changing, and when I paint the ones I remember I am like Chardin tattling on what we were…We are merely used to the idea that things do not change” (Op. cit., p. 19).