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From Bologna: Wayne Thiebaud at Museo Morandi

"Cheese Wedges," 2011; Courtesy of the Artist and Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco.

On the second floor of an old public building located next to the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, one can find the Museo Morandi, a dignified and modest exhibition space that is devoted to the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). Morandi has been widely regarded as the most important Italian painter of the twentieth century, an assertion that was confirmed by a major retrospective devoted to his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. That exhibition garnered both praise and interest because of the way that the deeply considered, quiet, and introspective character of the Bolognese master's work seemed to be such a welcome and uncanny retort to the noisy spectacle of contemporary-art-as-we-know-it.

Morandi lived and worked all his life in Bologna, where, for many years, he taught etching at that city's Accademia di Belle Arti. Although he made frequent visits to nearby Venice and Florence, in his latter years, he was something of a recluse. Now, over four decades after his death, his oddly eccentric still life compositions still attest to the fact that his legacy as the reigning master of painterly understatement and complex formal subtlety is fully intact. In so many ways, Morandi was a true painter's painter, deeply ensconced in Italian art history. He was deeply aware of the crucial role that evocations of light and atmosphere play in slowing the viewer's gaze to the point where pictorial nuance becomes the locus for an aesthetics of deep meditation.

Recently, the Museo Morandi invited Wayne Thiebaud to exhibit fifteen smaller works alongside eleven by Morandi in two of its intimate galleries. The exhibition was curated by Alessia Masi with Carla Crawford and is designed to set up close side-by-side comparisons between the two artists. For example, one of Morandi's trademark groupings of humble crockery paired with geometrically skewed blocks of cheese in a 1956 painting simply titled Natura morta is set up next to one of Thiebaud's signature works titled Cheese Wedges (2011). The latter work shows blocks of cheese set on a deli counter with plastic price tags affixed to them. In another instance, one of Thiebaud's landscape paintings of the Sacramento River delta from the late 1980s is positioned next to one of the landscapes that Morandi painted during the single year that he fled Bologna (1944) owing to the danger posed by nearby military hostilities. The works by Thiebaud exemplify all phases of his long career, and almost all of the works in this exhibition are small, making for intimate visual encounters that seduce a viewer's eye. Generally, such pairings seem focused on similarities of subject matter, but there are also some obvious formal similarities, such as the backgrounds formulated out of almost flat color that isolate the foreground objects amid intentionally indistinct environments.

The real interest provoked by this exhibition lies in how it reveals the differences between the two painters, and by this, I do not mean that it stages any competitive confrontation, only a very intelligent contrast of sensibility and pictorial priority. Clearly, the most noticeable of these differences is color, and this alone could be the subject of a long philosophical essay. Thiebaud's color is richly informed by the late modern chromatics of Pop Art and Color-Field painting and is more distantly derived from the work of Matisse and Bonnard. Morandi's work is much more about tonality, atmospheric subtlety, and the fleeting tangibility of the way that edges between masses of color define form.


Wayne Thiebaud at Museo Morandi, installation view, Museo Morandi, 2011. Courtesy of Museo Morandi, Bologna.

These attributes connect Morandi's work to certain well-known examples of classical Asian painting, such as the famous Six Persimmons, painted by Mu Ch'i in the thirteenth century. This observation underscores the dreamy evanescence of Morandi's work, and it also leads viewers to how Morandi's still lifes differ from those of Cézanne, he being the only modern artist whom Morandi admired without equivocation. Cézanne's objects revel in a tangibility derived from a synthesis of visual look and tactile touch. On the other hand, Morandi's seem almost as if they were captured as reflections in a placid pool of water, on the verge of a kind of disappearance if and when any turbulence might enter the scene.

This distinction bears on Thiebaud's still lifes because they live in yet another perceptual space that is informed by very tight gestalts that give way to small festivals of sugary color that delight the eye. Thiebaud's work has often been discussed in the context of the Pop Art that is historically contemporaneous with it, but in truth, it is much more of a piece with the paintings of Edward Hopper; it represents a realism that is almost self-consciously American in character. His still life objects are all examples of American-style acquireability that are redeemed and given special dignity by way of his deft painterly touch, which is one that does get to the pictorial point rather quickly (compared to Morandi), but not too quickly and not as quickly as is the case with most Pop Art. Take, for example, Thiebaud's painting of a trio of bubble-gum dispensers titled Three Machines (1963). The machines are almost identical, although Thiebaud does bathe them in slightly different light. What one notices first is their fire-engine-red color, and then we see their multichromatic contents. Only after the sugar rush subsides do we note the regimented placement of the machines, vexingly equidistant from each other as well as the outer edges of the composition. Such compositional regimentation is a constant feature of Thiebaud's work, especially through the '70s, and it seems like an oblique nod to the idea of serial imagery that was thought to be so original in the early years of that decade. But Thiebaud's work is more clever than that, in that he often contradicts his serial deployments of objects with sharp cast shadows rendered in complementary colors, implying that his objects are defined by strong raking light

While thinking about the aesthetic relationships between this pair of painters, I walked over to the school where Morandi taught, hoping to stumble upon some insight gleaned from the artist's immediate environment. My visit to the school failed to provide me with any such thing, but a visit to the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna located next door proved fruitful. I imagined that this would be the place that Morandi would go on a break between classes, if only to beat Bologna's beastly summertime heat. I tried to see the things to which Morandi would have paid special attention. As luck would have it, the Pinacoteca has three galleries full of old fresco paintings, one containing a half dozen that are unfinished and two more containing others that had fallen into disrepair. Here we see it all -- ghostly forms limned out in whispering pale colors, intimations of what was or what might have been, half-mute ghosts that seem strangely alive and vexingly foreign to any "let's get to the point" type of thinking. As is true with Morandi's tabletop cosmologies, the only way to come to terms with this fresco collection is to silently sit there and let them slowly form themselves into consciousness. This is slow art at its best, and in our own moment of manic velocity, at its most uncanny as well.

Wayne Thiebaud at Museo Morandi is on view through October 2, 2011 at Museo Morandi in Bologna.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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