Wayne Thiebaud - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005

  • Literature

    The New Yorker: The Food Issue, September 5, 2005, p. 10 (illustrated on front cover)

  • Catalogue Essay

    The culmination of over sixty years of painting quintessentially American sweets and treats, Wayne Thiebaud’s Food Bowls, 2005, positions the viewer as a hungry customer standing at a delicatessen counter before a row of four white bowls, each filled with a variety of take-out foods and lusciously rendered against a minimal background. Evocative of the meditative still-lifes and urban portraits painted by his lifelong heroes, including Giorgio Morandi and Edward Hopper, Food Bowls is a testimony to Thiebaud’s virtuosic ability to accentuate the quotidian and overlooked. The superb painting, which graced the cover of The New Yorker in 2005, recalls the European still-lifes of the past while delectably capturing the present, and exemplifies Thiebaud’s remarkable vision that was celebrated this year at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York and the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis.

    Presenting us with the artist’s most iconic subject matter, Food Bowls positions Thiebaud in the art historical genealogy of still-life painters, in which he is the heir to renowned masters such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and the great challenger of the conventional genre, Paul Cézanne. It is perhaps Morandi, however, who most conspicuously shaped Thiebaud’s artistic thinking: in a 1981 article for The New York Times, Thiebaud credited his Italian predecessor’s still-lifes with showing him “what it is to believe in painting as a way of life, to love its tattletale evidence of our humanness”, in reference to the still-life’s ability reveal what we eat, and to a greater extent, who we are" (Wayne Thiebaud, “A Fellow Painter’s View of Giorgio Morandi,” The New York Times, November 15, 1981, online).

    Thiebaud has been exploring this truth-telling quality of the still-life genre for sixty years, and it was with the predecessors to Food Bowls that he first garnered acclaim in the early 1960s, brought about by his solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York and the acquisition of one of his paintings by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Morandi’s influence on Thiebaud’s oeuvre is still evident half a century later, and the contemplative quality and methodical placement of the vessels and dishes in the Morandi’s Natura morta, 1946, Tate Modern, London, is palpable in Food Bowls; indeed, Thiebaud once characterized his still-lifes that anticipated Food Bowls as an “obvious homage to Morandi” and Chardin (A. LeGrace Benson and David H.R. Shearer, “An Interview with Wayne Thiebaud,” Leonardo, no. 1, 1969, pp. 65-66). However, unlike his European predecessors, Thiebaud abandoned the conviction that a still-life was meant to be a hyper-realist representation of reality.

    Food Bowls features an impasto-rich surface that is characteristic of Thiebaud’s idiosyncratic technique: the creamy paint of the potato and egg salads emulates the viscous consistency of its subjects while the conspicuous brushstrokes strike a dynamic tension between abstraction and figuration. The three-dimensional quality of this late work due to such a thick application of paint is comparable to that of Cut Meringues, 1961, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. According to Margaretta M. Lovell, this exploitation of impasto highlights “the handmade character of the work, allowing us to empathetically feel the gesture of the artist’s hand, and draw[s] attention to the character and the act of representational imitation,” enabling Thiebaud to further manipulate the still-life’s natural tendency to divulge society’s secrets" (Margaretta M. Lovell, “City, River, Mountain: Wayne Thiebaud’s California,” Panorama, Fall 2017, online). Thiebaud dared to explore the full potential of raised tactility; in this way, his fresh eye towards texture allowed him to masterfully translate the banal subject of deli food into an engrossing painting. Though Food Bowls epitomizes Thiebaud’s artistic approach, the picture is hardly formulaic. “His style is highly personal, clear and distinct, but he does not paint by ‘formula’,” Donald J. Brewer noted. “His pictures take time and each involves a real struggle for completion” (Donald J. Brewer, “Preface”, Wayne Thiebaud Survey, 1947-1976, exh. cat., Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, 1976, p. 7).

    Food Bowls reveals Thiebaud’s astute ability to encapsulate everyday America in a single picture of inconspicuous food items. Building on the articulation and wistful quality of his earlier Three Sandwiches, 1961, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., the work similarly presents a display of deli cuisine that is nearly identical from coast to coast of the United States. Though Thiebaud has typically been considered a Pop artist due to his vernacular subject matter, the painterly style and well-defined shadows of Food Bowls are more aligned with Edward Hopper’s Americana works than Andy Warhol’s seriality and appropriation. The Hopper-esque silhouettes that are evident here are one of Thiebaud’s career-long motifs and are reminiscent of the contours that pepper his painting from almost 50 years earlier, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento. In a 2001 interview with curator and historian Dr. Susan Larsen, Thiebaud acknowledged Hopper’s influence on his oeuvre while explaining that his decades-long fascination with comfort food – such as the deli options on the counter in Food Bowls – is due to its ubiquity, noting that it is “available in almost every place in America” (Wayne Thiebaud, "Oral history Interview with Susan Larsen”, Archives of American Art, May 17-18, 2001, online).

    The tone of Thiebaud’s sumptuous Americana treats in Food Bowls is hard to grasp: the work is simultaneously nostalgic and ironic, meticulous but chaotic, earnestly painted yet corrupted by a playful olive atop the egg salad. Perhaps this ambivalence – which fuses the solemnity of European art history with a Californian light-heartedness – is what makes it an American picture above all.

Property from an Important Midwest Collection


Food Bowls

incised with the artist's signature and date "♥ Thiebaud 05" upper right; further signed and dated "♥ Thiebaud 2005" on the reverse
oil on canvas
28 x 22 in. (71.1 x 55.9 cm.)
Painted in 2005.

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $1,635,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018