Wayne Thiebaud's landscapes and cityscapes, particularly his views of roads and freeways, are as vital to a complete understanding of his oeuvre as his paintings of cakes, pies, and other examples of consumer ephemera, and in choosing the freeway as the subject of this work, Thiebaud continues this lifelong fascination with the images and objects that evoke modern America. The elegant curves of the rolling California hills and the majestic arcs of the freeway as it meanders through landscape recall the arcs and ellipses that can be seen in some of the artist's most iconic work such as Cakes, 1963, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961, and Lipsticks,1964. Thiebaud's combination of foreshortened perspective and dramatic shadows cast by the thunderous expressway as it snakes its way through the countryside, effects a compositional labyrinth that reverberates with strong visual, nearly abstract, forms. The result is a work that causes us to reconsider the familiar, to open our eyes to the visual possibilities contained within even the most mundane observable landscape.
In 1972, while living in Sacramento, Thiebaud bought a second home and studio in San Francisco's Potrero Hill district and based several significant works on this cityscape. The giddy sensation of unending rolling hills is compressed into a dizzying vertigo by telescoping the sensation of scaling and then plunging down the escarpments. The spatial ambivalence that upends Study for Freeway, reinforces the artist's visual pleasures: "I was fascinated...by the way that different streets came in and out and then just vanished. So I sat out on a street corner and began to paint them" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in A. Gopnik, "An American Painter," in Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., San Francisco, 2000, p. 58). Just as in San Francisco, the roads of Study for Freeway disappear at times, vanishing as their steep vertical ascent meets the horizon of the hilltops.
The visual tensions of Cézanne, the space between the reading of flat surface and pictorial depth, was referred to at one point by Thiebaud: "In Cézanne there is always this swelling, like the volume trying to get away from the plane, even though there is also a linear matrix. It's like trying to have both worlds simultaneously. If this kind of anthologizing of procedure and inference of spatial concerns can be evident in [my] painting, I think it's much more interesting" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in T. Albright, "Wayne Thiebaud: Scrambling Around with Ordinary Problems," Art News, February 1978, p. 86). In Study for Freeway, the "swelling" of volume can be seen in the rolling curves of the natural landscape that oppose the linear matrix of black roads and outlined rooftops.
Like Cézanne, Thiebaud's close and careful examination of the individual elements that make up the landscape has resulted in a painting that challenges the traditional conventions of the genre. There appears to be no contrast between the natural and man-made, but rather a fusion of elements into one unified scene. His use of perspective draws the viewer into the scene, asking us to consider the nature of our surroundings while encouraging us to recognize the haunting sense of beauty in even the most ubiquitous of objects.