The Wind, the Rain, and Wayne Thiebaud at SFMOMA

(L–R) Wayne Thiebaud, 'Pineapple Tray' (1972/1990/1992); 'Sketch for "Girl With Pink Hat,"' (1973); and 'Canyon Mountains' (2011-2012), on display at SFMOMA's 'Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings and Drawings.' (Don Ross, Katherine du Tiel)

It was one of those rainy winter Saturdays at SFMOMA, where the storm blows pedestrians through the revolving doors and into the lobby, their cold shoes tracking wet leaves across the floor. Even without a ticket, the museum's coffee kiosk and gift shop at least promised respite from the downpour—and, up the stairs near the membership desk, the entrance to Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings and Drawings, a two-room exhibition of the Bay Area artist's work.

Between lounge furniture and iPhone charging stations, all fully occupied, sat a display of Thiebaud's tools: brushes, paint, the repurposed tennis ball lids he uses as palettes. A 1985 photo of Thiebaud in a striped bowtie, sitting in his San Francisco studio, caught the attention of some teenage girls. “Oh my God, have you watched Bob Ross?” one of them asked the others. “My sister, like, loves him.”

Wayne Thiebaud, 'Girl with a Pink Hat,' 1973; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Jeannette Powell; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York.
Wayne Thiebaud, 'Girl with a Pink Hat,' 1973; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Jeannette Powell; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (Photo: Don Ross)

In the next room began a selection from 50 years of Thiebaud's work, all from the museum's own holdings. Thiebaud himself has been visiting SFMOMA since 1942, a full 31 years before painting Girl With Pink Hat (1973), a magnetic portrait bathed in sun, skin, and Thiebaud's signature sense of color.

Adjacent to Girl With Pink Hat, six sketches showed various other approaches initially considered for the girl, before Thiebaud settled on an emotionless expression, a topless pose, and a slight angle to her body accenting the curves of her breasts. On Saturday, parking himself in front of the painting, a balding, heavy-set man in a Chicago Bears sweatshirt spent two minutes taking pictures with his phone, trying to get the perfect shot.

The next room contained some of Thiebaud's cityscapes, including Sunset Streets (1985), which attracted the attention of a twentysomething man in oversize jeans and slick hair. “That's trippy!” he exclaimed, then called over his girlfriend to explain to her exactly why. “See, it's like three-dimension, with another dimension at the same time,” he instructed. “I used to do stuff like that. Back when I was good at drawing.”

Wayne Thiebaud, 'Valley Streets,' 2003; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York.
Wayne Thiebaud, 'Valley Streets,' 2003; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York.

The girlfriend wandered away. The afternoon was turning into evening. A family with two young boys walked in, lured by Confections (1962), a bright-hued Thiebaud painting of dessert, one of three such works in the exhibition. The mother, clearly the captain of what seemed to be an exhausted ship, tried to stoke their interest.

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“Look! We've seen this before!” she chimed. “Or maybe not this one, but he did a whole series, you know. See over here, it's a pineapple tray with olives and deviled eggs. Remember we had deviled eggs on Monday? You said you didn't like them.”

The husband and sons remained silent. “Okay, let's go,” she said, and with that, she turned and whisked them away—past the entrance, beyond the giant lobby, and back out onto the wet sidewalk of January in San Francisco. It was as surreal as one of Thiebaud's streetscapes, his woozy perspective throwing everything, including random overheard conversations at a museum, into high relief.

'Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings and Drawings' runs through April 28 at SFMOMA in San Francisco. Details here. A concurrent exhibition, 'Artist's Choice,' represents Thiebaud's selection of over 30 works from the museum's collection by Joan Miró, Max Beckmann, Elmer Bischoff, Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe; it runs through March 10. Details here.

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