Child’s play


Thiebaud's world

I was watching a documentary not too long ago about a little pre-schooler, Marla Olmstead, who ostensibly paints beautifully composed abstracts. They are vivid, mostly cheerful celebrations of paint, and some of them are actually impressive. Unquestionably, though, they look as if someone much older had finished them. Dutifully, the documentary raises the question of whether her father has helped her paint them, or maybe is simply painting them himself—in my view they would be fine works of art even if Mr. Olmstead had been able to paint them only by pretending to be his little daughter. Now that would have been a more interesting, and certainly much funnier, investigation. But what struck me was how the director of My Kid Could Paint framed the story of Marla’s sudden emergence on the scene: as the triumph of innocent, playful joy in a jaded, postmodern art world with deadly serious pretensions of speaking truth to power, celebrating the abnormal, casting a cold eye on consumer culture, trying strenuously to be obscure and difficult, and in general doing what the French applaud as epater le bourgoisie—more or less giving the finger to the middle class, the average guy, the uninitiated. The art of cruelty, as it were.

I’ve always distrusted any view of art that assumes you need to know the secret handshake in order to really appreciate what’s going on. Matthew Barney is a genius of some kind, no question. His films are powerful and hypnotic. But I don’t have a clue what he’s doing, and I’m guessing most people who wandered with me through his Guggenheim show felt the same way. The movie about little Marla got me thinking about Matisse and his desire to paint pictures that would sooth the viewer, like an easy chair at the end of the day. Who would claim to have that goal, as an artist, now? But isn’t the art we love the art that matters most? Wasn’t that what Van Gogh and the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists were doing: painting images they believed viewers would love? Chagall, Klee, Janet Fish, Fairfield Porter, and many other painters were playing in that same space, not trying to shock anyone with their work, but to get people to look eagerly at the world, or at least at their paintings of it, with some measure of joy. And, in the process, maybe open a few minds, soften a few spirits, here and there.

Wayne Thiebaud comes to mind, doesn’t he? His landscapes construct an imaginative world with its own set of rules and laws: an alternate universe, a heightened version of the view you get from the window of a jet rising into the sky. They are visionary masterpieces, a kind of wish fulfillment, the work of a man painting exactly what he most wants to see. His world doesn’t exist anywhere but on his canvases, but in some ways, like Plato’s forms, they strike the viewer as more real and alive than the world we drive though every day. From the beginning, as in these scenes, his simple, guileless rule has been to simply paint what he loves to paint. Cakes, candy, ice cream cones, hot dogs, anything that conveys delight. This was just as true of Chardin, centuries ago: nothing was too humble for him as a subject, as long as it easily surrendered its living spirit to his brush. The aim for all the artists I’ve named is delight in the object depicted and in the quality of paint. To some degree, it’s child’s play. That spirit of deeply attentive play is not a quality present in all great art, but it’s the heart of all the painting I love most. It’s so much more expedient, in the art world now, to be dark, sardonic, confrontational.

Thiebaud’s success was as guileless as his art. In the early 60s, he walked the streets of Manhattan looking for a gallery, with his canvases rolled up under his arm, getting laughed out of one gallery after another. “Let me tell you something, Mr. Thiebaud. You are no Picasso,” one gallery owner said. Thiebaud smiled and said, “You’re right. I’m not.”

He told CBS Sunday Morning several years ago, “I’d painted these eight or ten pies on a plate and thought nobody will take me seriously now. But I couldn’t leave it alone.”

That’s exactly what makes his art so compelling. He couldn’t help himself. He painted the only way he could bring himself to paint, and he had the courage believe in what he was doing and not do what others might think was more worthwhile or marketable, even though it might have made him appear a lightweight. Exhausted that day, rejected by everyone, he paused in the doorway of Allan Stone’s gallery, trying to work up the courage to go in.

As Stone told CBS: “I hollered out, can I help you? ‘No, I just want to rest here,’ he said. What are those under your arm? ‘They’re rolled up paintings. You wouldn’t be interested. Nobody else is.’ When I first saw them my reaction was, this guy is nuts. There’s just these rows of pies and cakes and they were silly looking. But after a while there was a kind of insistence and integrity about them that was undeniable.”

Stone gave Thiebaud his chance. The rest is history. Few careers have been more successful. His timing was incredibly lucky. Pop Art was taking hold. His work looked as if it were part of the larger movement, though it had none of that deadpan, ironic distance that Pop Art mostly used to create a sense in the viewer that a Warhol soup can, for example, is looking down on the popular culture it feeds and feeds upon. Thiebaud’s paintings didn’t really fit the category. They were acts of love.

His first show in 1962 sold out. The Museum of Modern Art actually bought one of his paintings. Stone said, “He was amazed anyone would buy them. So was I.” His paintings just got better and better.

“When people look at your paintings what do you want them to see?” he was asked.

Thiebaud’s answer is a model of the sort of absolute humility many artists would do well to emulate: “I want them to laugh a little. I haven’t the slightest idea what art is. But to be a painter is something you have to prove. You are never fully convinced of what you’re doing. It’s part of the joy of it. You keep hoping.”

  1. No Comments