In 1965, immediately after graduation from UCLA with an MFA in painting, I accepted a job with a small remote school, American River Junior College in Carmichael, California, just on the outskirts of Sacramento. UCLA had told me that they would hire me to teach, but that I had to first teach somewhere else for a year. My interview with the school president was to be the only job interview I would ever have; I was hired on the spot, perhaps because I had strong letters of approval from Richard Diebenkorn, Bill Brice and Ed Kienholz.
I moved into a lovely small brick house on a very large property surrounded by trees and five minutes by car to the college. The living room made a good studio. I was twenty-four years old and had already had a one person exhibition arranged by Bob Irwin with David Stuart of my Girl pieces which were based on tracing my women friends and using their clothing as collage material. I was part of the LA art scene and was included in some of the first Pop Art shows along with Wayne Thiebaud and the usual suspects from both coasts.
I had never met Thiebaud and was delighted when he telephoned me to say that he'd heard I was coming to Sacramento and to invite me to take part in a group exhibition of local artists that he was organizing.
Wayne was inclusive and outreaching. Having spent his formative years in New York, he was now happily ensconced in the calm of Sacramento as head of the Art department at the University of California, Davis and in this position he brought much of the top talent from the San Francisco Bay Area to teach at Davis.
Out in the country and best known for its agriculture and veterinary departments, UC, Davis was an oasis of adventuresome and focused art making. Thiebaud, along with Bob Arneson, Bill Wiley, Manuel Neri, Roy De Forest and others were intertwined academically and socially with a group of talented graduate students, most memorably, Bruce Nauman who was already making astounding pieces that would take their place in art history.
A surprise bonus came when I ran into Mel Ramos at a party in San Francisco and learned that the he lived just a few blocks away. He was painting some of the best works of his career in the family garage; his canvas leaning against the family car, and his palette and brushes resting on top of the washer and dryer. I remember when Leo Castelli visited the garage. Even then I understood that the laid back vibes in Sacramento made the vibrant LA art scene seem uptight and self-conscious.
The black and white photo in the interior of Candy Apple is a detail of Five Seated Figures, 1965 which is, I believe, the largest painting that Thiebaud ever executed and which is now in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The man in the painting is me, and on my right is Grace McClatchy, the wife of the publisher of the celebrated local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee. To my left is Judy Weintraub-Judy and her lawyer husband were modestly collecting and friends of Wayne and Betty.
For many weekend days, I delighted in putting on a suit and tie (one of the few times I've ever worn one) and posing with the others for Wayne's group portrait. During each session I was able to hang a small painting of his that I especially liked directly across from where I was seated, thereby allowing me to experience the work for many sustained hours, a privilege that is usually restricted to those who own and live with a work.
Wayne was already celebrated as a brilliant painter and I felt privileged to have contact with him. Every day of these sittings we'd walk to lunch at a hamburger stand nearby, decked out in our "formal" duds.
At this time, I made the first of my small house sculptures. I used snips and cut up pieces of found tin, using vast numbers of brads to hammer the tin to small iconic wooden forms.
Wayne suggested we trade, which is always the deepest gesture of admiration and acceptance between artists. He offered me an exquisite detailed small watercolor of a case of pies. I can't believe that as a twenty-four year old I had the nerve to say that what I really wanted was a painting in which the object being depicted was basically life size and the rich paint quality directly mimicked the surface and texture of the thing being depicted. I felt that this was his most intense and original work. Wayne said that he'd see what he could do.
Some time after I moved back to LA, I was leaving the David Stuart Gallery when David yelled for to me to stop. He opened his desk drawer and said "I always forget to give this to you" whereupon he threw a small package wrapped in brown paper the length of the gallery. Luckily I caught it. That's the moment the Candy Apple painting came into my life. All these years the painting has hung as a radiant icon and a touchstone to a unique artist at one of his best moments.
- Tony Berlant