In Conversation with Wayne Thiebaud

Wayne Thiebaud

KQED's art series Spark kicks off its seventh season with a look at the life and work of one of the country's greatest living painters: Wayne Thiebaud. His iconic still lifes pay homage to America's favorite foods, and his insights into the theory of painting have influenced generations of students. He sat down to talk with KQED about painting and teaching.

Is there ever a day that you wake up and you don't feel like painting?

Yes, actually, a lot of days. But I do it anyway.

I didn't go to art school. I worked in sign painting and commercial art designing. And in that world, you get up and go to work whether you like it or not. So that's my routine.

I've read some things that you've said about trying to compete with the real, and that a painting both is and isn't the thing it's trying to represent. Would you tell me a little bit about that?

Well, it's a marvelous fiction, like writing. You have to make a leap to faith in both painting and literature. But the information, the wealth of information that's there in those great mediums, is really ourselves, and finding out about ourselves. So we're not alone. We have a sense of community. And that dialectic is what's so captivating.

But you have to do it. You have to make the leap to faith that the object really is sitting on the table, that the angel is really flying. The reality of painting, from that standpoint, is really a great mysterious human construct, and one of our great inventions.

I think one of the difficulties is how we got mixed up with the term "art." Art's probably one of the dirtiest words of the English language, in the sense that we don't really know what it is. And we shouldn't know what it is, because it's still organizing itself. It is still out there for expansion and change.

But the marvelous thing about painting is that it is real, concrete. It's a thing. It's just this board or canvas with stuff smeared on it, or put on it. And yet, it can be brought to life like Lazarus.

I won't let students use the term "art." If they tell me, "professor Thiebaud, I'm going to do my art today." I say, "Wait a minute. No. Don't say 'art,' because someone else is going to have to decide about whether what you're doing is art or not. Just tell me what you're going to do. Are you going to go make a painting? Are you going to do some color problems? Are you going to do something real?"

If you get into the idea of art, there is this solipsistic threat where you're already an artist, and that's what is so destructive today in the art world, I think, that they put the art before the horse.

Wayne Thiebaud

You teach a class or two a semester at U.C. Davis.

Just about.

And you've been doing this since 1960.

Well, officially I retired after teaching 35 years. They made you retire at that point. They can't do that anymore. Now I go back on a voluntary basis. And since I'm working for nothing, they can't fire me-and I don't have to go to faculty meetings!

For people who might be considering a life of teaching, especially in the arts, why do it?

It's like Louis Armstrong said: "If you have to ask what jazz is, then you'll never know. " In a way, teaching is like that. I think it's some sort of neurotic impulse, certainly.

And it keeps you honest. If you're willing to say, "I don't know," and say to students, "Look, I can't give you any answers to anything. I can give you some tools to get at answers, to find out about answers, whether it's painting or anything else."

That's an experience that represents a community of interest with students. I always think of students as not exactly friends and compatriots, but as on the same quest. They inform me.

Also, I have the luxury of trying out my enthusiasms about something like color, teaching a class in color with 30 students. I have a laboratory where I can experiment, where I can say, "Well, we're going to try and do so-and-so" and ask questions like:

What happens when we try to clarify the difference between hue value and intensity? How can we get better at it? What are the devices that will allow us to do that? And that's something that I really have used. I take as much from that as I do from my other experiences.

It's the hardest thing I've ever done next to trying to paint. But you learn all kinds of things.

I'll give one example: I gave this lecture on Cubism, and to date all the things we know about Cubism. And I talked about interpenetration of form and about the idea of various views. And I was so proud of myself: "This is analytical cubism, this is synthetic cubism, and so on."

And a question comes from a young student, a young woman who says, "I think that's a terrible name for it. I don't see any cubes there." And I reply, "Well, you're right, except maybe early on, Picasso's In Horta had these houses, which were sort of like cubes."

"No," she said, "They're all slanted." She points out that they weren't cubes. And so I said, "Well, maybe there's a better name for it."

"Certainly, there is. I have a name for it." "It should be called the Crystal Period."

[Laughs] So she's learned something more than I did. Because when you think about faceting, and the growth of crystals, and the whole idea of crystals in reference to cubism, it makes a little more sense than anything I said about it.

And that happens over and over again. Which to me, at least, indicates something terribly important-how alive painting is as a discipline, as an avenue for exploration, for the development of new visual species.

Do you imagine continuing to find new questions and new problems?

I hope so. But that's what you do as a painter. You live on hope. That next picture. It's like when they asked Matisse what his favorite painting was. He said, "It should be obvious, shouldn't it? It's the one on the easel. That's the one. That has to be my favorite. And after I do the best I can on it, it won't be my favorite anymore."

That, maybe, is overdrawn, but in a way what keeps you going is the thrill of experiment and expectation.

I think it was Robert Frost who said: "If I get up in the morning and am able still to walk over and make my bed, all the rest of the day is gravy." I feel much the same way. I just feel so especially fortunate to be able to still be doing it.

  • Visit the Spark website

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