Magazine article The New Yorker

Oldies but Goodies

Magazine article The New Yorker

Oldies but Goodies

Article excerpt

OLDIES BUT GOODIES

Wayne Thiebaud, the painter, who lives in Sacramento and who, at ninety-three, plays tennis for at least an hour and a half most mornings, was on his way to the Frick the other day, when he stopped for a coffee at Lady M, on East Seventy-eighth Street, a minimally decorated boutique-y place selling "confectionary delights"--or, to use Thiebaud's phrase, on his arrival, "un-American cakes." Thiebaud was wearing a blue windbreaker from which he had not yet removed day-old proof-of-payment stickers from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney--Thiebaud's work is in both collections--and he looked like a high-school athletic coach a week or two into retirement.

He took a seat by the door. Seventy-five- and eighty-dollar confections--including a checkerboard chocolate-and-vanilla sponge cake, a strawberry shortcake, something lemony--were lined up in a low white case, in a white room. That morning, some Lady M customers began to take photographs the moment they walked in, before the door had closed behind them; their avidity was perhaps connected to the work of Thiebaud, who in his first, hit New York show, in 1962, arranged sequences of stoical cakes and pies in brightly lit, unpeopled space, to make paintings that were warily respectful of American baking, and of America. He subsequently found other subjects--city streets, melons--but his current show, at Acquavella Galleries, includes new work on the old theme. As Thiebaud put it, there are still days that start with the thought: This morning, I'd like to paint a pie.

Thiebaud was born in Arizona and grew up in Southern California. His first experience of New York was in the mid-forties, when he stayed a year and worked as a freelance cartoonist. At Solomon Guggenheim's Museum of Non-Objective Painting, on East Fifty-fourth Street, he was distracted from the art by Greta Garbo: "I just followed her around and watched her looking at paintings. And then I saw Salvador Dali, about two hours later. I could see why people lived in New York." He returned to the city ten years later, having committed to a career in painting and teaching. "That's when I met my heroes"--Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and others--"and I changed my whole program." He was struck by their seriousness about the history of painting--"They were interested as much in Rembrandt as in Soutine and Picasso"--and by their advice: "If you're going to paint, you'd better find out why you're doing it, and you should do something that you know about, that you're infatuated with. …

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