Upon first encountering one of Wayne Thiebaud's Gum Ball Machine paintings in 1963, Barnett Newman exclaimed, "All those globes of colored beauty, and for a penny, out comes something sweet and wonderful!" (Barnett Newman quoted in Wayne Thiebaud; A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2000, p. 20). Indeed, much like a child delights in the magical transformation of a dingy penny into a delectable round candy, in Gum Ball Machine, Thiebaud relishes his ability to transform a commonplace object into a site of nostalgia and beauty, while remaining refreshingly uncomplicated and digestible. Banal enough to allow the artist to concentrate on the structure, color, and texture of the object, yet psychologically loaded with its capability to trigger childhood reminiscence and hint at American consumer culture, the gum ball machine is emblematic of Theibaud's delicate balance between the concrete, the abstract, and the conceptual. With the use of colored chalks, Thiebaud demonstrates his mastery of a variety of mediums, saturating the paper with juicy layers of color in warm and cool tones, juxtaposed to create a glowing bouquet of color and contour. The result is a mouth-watering orchestration of round forms that demands quiet reflection, yet simultaneously asks to be plucked up and consumed.
Thiebaud's iconic studies of common American foodstuffs draw upon both the traditional and the contemporary. While working in the tradition of still-life painting, Thiebaud meditates on the beauty of form and color in the vein of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries but uses the subject matter associated with Pop Art of mass production and consumption. While small in scale, Gum Ball Machine elevates the readily-available, democratic object to a state of artistic aristocracy by isolating it; a Duchampian gesture. By depicting the familiar image of the gum ball machine, Thiebaud takes the genre of still life off its pedestal and allows the viewer to revel in the simple pleasure of seeing, to appreciate the shapes for their beauty, and to be thrilled by their effervescent color. Instead of relying on an overtly sensational image of something special or strange in order to create emotion, Thiebaud prefers the use of a familiar object, creating an enchanting sense of nostalgia as one recalls the inexpensive pleasure of a being a kid in a candy store with a penny in their pocket.
In Gum Ball Machine, Thiebaud does away with the third party of a brush in exchange for colored pieces of chalk, revealing the immediacy yet control of his touch. His remarkable handling of line, form, and color demonstrates his mastery over the medium while retaining a charming childlike quality, reminiscent of the pleasure a child takes in pressing crayons against the pages of a coloring book. With the chalk's capability of being smudged, blended, rubbed, or layered, the effect is at once intangible and palpable. The texture vacillates between light areas of gently rubbed color, heavy outlines, and velvety applications of pigment built up to create the effect of a succulent candy. Furthermore, the white of the background and the front of the machine are matched in shade, so that the machine moves at once forward and back into space. Calculated intervals of flattened planes of color and modulated forms create a pattern of flavorful geometry, resulting in a visually rich experience triggered by a small, simple object.