Interview conducted on March 18, 2009 at the LeBarons Fine Art building in Sacramento, California for the Loveland Museum of Art, Loveland, Colorado. Mr. Thiebaud and I sat in his son’s office surrounded by art books, some of his smaller paintings, as well as paintings done by his grandchildren. He said he had one hour but that easily slipped into a ninety minute conversation; I could have talked to him all day.
RF: When people write about your work they use such words and phrases as: ‘what happiness feels like’; ‘radiant rainbow outlines’; ‘dance of brushstrokes’; and, ‘joyful’. I wonder, is the light and humor in your work a reflection of you as a person or more influenced by something outside your control?
WT: Those pictures are a result of my being a spoiled child. My parents were terrific parents, and I could really do nothing wrong. So, I had one of those privileged spoiled lives.
RF: It’s interesting that you would say that having grown up in the Depression.
WT: Yes, and it was an astounding experience, particularly in reference to what’s happening now. But then we had moved. My dad sort of lost everything, he lost all the money he had except for enough to go in with some members of the family to buy a ranch in southern Utah. So, I was raised during that particular time when I was young, and we always had plenty to eat because we grew crops. The only problem was we couldn’t sell them. So, that was a really wonderful time for me as a child. And my parents were, of course, hard-working but dedicated to the fact that we would find our way out of it. We were on the farm mainly when the depths of the Depression occurred.
RF: Then you moved to Southern California, right?
WT: Right – to Long Beach – which was a wonderful old place to grow up.
RF: And a continuation of a wonderful childhood. I can just imagine growing up on the beach.
WT: Yes, it was great.
RF: On that same note of how you grew up and what you bring to painting: You were friends with the de Koonings and met them, I think, when you went to New York the first time…
WT: Right. I stayed in New York two times in my life, about a year each time. The first year I tried to sell cartoons, and I wanted to work in advertising. Then, when I got interested in painting, I came back ten years later in 1956. My heroes were people like de Kooning and Arshile Gorky and that whole wonderful period of New York painting. And that was a great changing experience. I had started teaching at the Long Beach Junior College so I had to take a year off without pay and went back and worked again in New York advertising, but spent time in the evenings and weekends getting to meet those people, going to exhibitions, spending time in the Cedar Tavern – it became such a famous place – but at the time it was kind of one relatively small art world. And you saw, at openings, and in the general context of that period, critics, artists, writers, poets, all the kind of community. So, that was a great changing experience for me.
RF: I wonder if you had – the first or second time you stayed in NY – if your comics had taken off and you had gotten a job in NY, do you think living in NY would have changed the way you painted or the way your painting had evolved over the years?
WT: I think…I had already met someone who was a great model, what you would call a really serious person who worked doing painting and sculpture, and he became a very critical kind of influence. He made me shape-up more; made me do more reading; made me understand what real critical interrogation of work was about. His name was Robert Mallary. He was a terrific influence.
RF: Would you tell me some of the things he recommended you do at the time and how he made you ‘shape-up’?
WT: Essentially, work harder; develop a critical sense; understand what you are doing and know how to design problems which would get you to someplace where you thought you wanted to be. And that was very helpful. He would spend hours on what it was to interrogate a work of art: How to understand it in terms of its formal relationship; how to develop alternatives; hypothetical possibilities that you should learn to think about; how to sit and reflect and really try to determine in your mind running alternatives to what you were doing in terms of the picture’s potential; make it darker, how to transfer it from, say, one kind of value structure to a higher structure, what that would do to it; what to do if you were to take all your color out of it and do it in black and white. Those options, which represent for a painter, I think, the tools of use and how to prepare, for yourself, always to be specific in order to take risks, to not be afraid of failure, make lots of work which is worth only throwing out. So, that was a very big and helpful exercise.
RF: Not being afraid to fail is a really important thing for an artist, isn’t it?
WT: Very much so. And for students, particularly, getting them used to that, and getting them used to the idea that the ‘nerve of failure’ is a very important aspect of painting, and while it makes you uncomfortable and vulnerable, if you don’t elevate your desires and ambitions to some kind of level of reality in terms of the long tradition that you are a part of however small then you have the risk of ignobling that great tradition which we use and which we respect and which we are hopefully a part of.
RF: I recently read that a high percentage of art students never actually go on to be artists.
WT: Yes, it’s a high fall-out rate.
RF: Why do you think that is?
WT: Well, it’s too damn difficult and too painful, on the one-hand. I think it’s a kind of neurosis. You have to give up a lot to gain a little. There are no guaranteed results. Those are not good options for a life. But if you are willing to make a life out of it, if you can learn to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst, and see the painting itself as an extraordinary human invention – that becomes enough for you. Then going to museums, taking it on, loving what you’re doing, conditioned to the failures, getting some good instruction and critical reaction, which has nothing to do with success but has to do with a realization of where you are, what kind of progress you’re making and ways to do that and to form. I think, also another important thing: a kind of community of your own with some of the people, whether it’s one other person or a group of people. Those groups represent a kind of balancing act where you can have some kind of frank, honest confrontation and some sort of shared, communal love and series of responses; then you’re going to be okay, then you’re going to find a way to do those things which you love to do and are willing to give up those things that have no guaranteed results.
RF: Since we’re on this track, what’s the best advice you give your students? What do you really want them to take away – because you are still teaching at UC Davis, right?
WT: You’d have to ask the students about teaching. (chuckles) Teaching is one of the great other activities of my life. It still intrigues me, it still baffles me. You try to figure out to what extent you can have influence and what kind of influence you are responsible to have. Your responsibility, it seems to me, is to try to give them, first of all, those great examples of what it is to make these paintings, which are miracles, and to respect that and to understand that; to try to develop and show them what tools there are to make that possible.
RF: I’m always curious about this: I think the best instructors are able to help students find their own voice. You don’t see a lot of Wayne Thiebaud wannabes out there. How are you able to do that, encourage your students to find their own voice?
WT: Thank God for that! You have to aim higher than that.
RF: (Laughs) Oh, stop!
WT: No, I’m serious; it’s not a false humility. You are in a serious business. You are in the world of Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso, Michelangelo. How audacious that is to pick up a brush in light of what’s been done, right? So, nothing to do with false modesty at all but to try and account for yourself in some way and to try and liken your own development and how you might be making some progress and what traps there are for you out there. To try and avoid becoming what I might refer to as an ‘art world employee’ where you develop these products of commercial value, where you manufacture some kind of product. That’s not what painting is about. Painting is about, for me, research, confrontation, taking risks, going on and trying to challenge yourself to get better always. So, it’s a – I don’t know where we started with this question – it has to do really with some kind of self confrontation, continuously. And there are lots of issues that are wonderful alternative also to the kind of dedication it takes to do what might be a parallel instance of art and science, where there is research (science), which may be totally irrelevant to what you are doing or may be on the cusp of some discovery, or applied research which has very good formidable functions and uses, and that’s something which I admire a lot, like great graphic designers, illustrators. In those realms, those also have the capacity to make art – whatever art is. And that’s an important distinction for me to be sure that you are careful about calling yourself an artist and be proud of calling yourself a designer, craftsman, painter, so that you are on a realistic footing. Art is something which we are still trying to define. It’s an abstraction. I’m talking about it like I know what I’m talking about. All I’m doing is telling you my prejudices.
RF: I appreciate that. It’s a question I ask artists all the time: When does it become art? So many artists, you start out copying and growing, illustration is a great foundation, but when does it go from illustration to fine art? Those lines are kind of blurry, I think.
WT: Very, very blurry. It has to do, I suppose, in a simple-minded sense with the extraordinariness, and it has to be something really special, something golden, something so extreme, so accomplished that you can say, “That probably is art.” But that is very rare. Most of us will never be artists. Most of what we do won’t be art; it will be some stumbling, half-way, partial, interesting, effective – and those are all very sound reasons to do. It would be wildly impossible to be artists. God bless those people who do it. Berthe Morisot is an artist. Rosa Bonheur is an artist, for me, beyond, and because, they are also painters and they use painting as the medium which allows them to get through to an extraordinary accomplishment. Yes, I call that art.
RF: I think it was Picasso who said: “Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” I love your quote to that affect: “I’m very influenced by the tradition of painting and not at all self-conscious about identifying my sources…I actually just steal things from people that I can use—just blatant plagiarism.” Would you talk about some of your influences, especially people like Edward Hopper and Richard Diebenkorn, and explain how you feel they were influential?
RF: I’d love to talk about that, and when we are talking about art and artists and sort of defining things, who would you say throughout your life has been an influence, and who do you look at as an artist.
WT: Well, all those people that I previously mentioned, and the whole tradition of great painting. It might help to clarify something, and I suppose being an old teacher of a hundred and eight years (laughs), when students come and are disinterested finally and say, ‘Well, everything has been done, what am I doing with this? How can I ever possibly be? Why should I add anything, if I could, to this?’ Well, you try to talk about the idea of influence. That’s the whole story of art history, form one stylistic variance, to one sort of character of style to one issuance of change. This evidence of what we call ‘original’ are very minor changes. It’s almost as all painters are most surprised when someone comes along and does something and everybody gets all excited about this, and some of us say, ‘What? That’s not surprising. That comes out of, you know, Roman Illusionistic painting, and so and so.’ What is it if you take someone like Van Gogh and you can find all his influences from French Tapestries and Magacello (muffled), Daumier, Millet, all of his heroes, Pissarro, Degas, all the people he said he loved, he loved Cezanne. And you can say, ‘Yes, you can find all those issuances in Van Gogh—why is he still Van Gogh?’ It’s a new visual species slightly away from all of his influences; it’s suddenly this new visual species. So, as soon as you say “Van Gogh!” (snaps his fingers), this IBM card – not only is it painting – it’s also, when I look at a cypress it’s a Van Gogh cypress. How he made that connection – it’s a miracle, a marvel.
RF: I was just thinking of an opera that Zandra Rhodes a fashion designer designed the sets for. She really channeled Van Gogh into the sets, so instead of regular palm trees they all had these Van Gogh patterns. So she took his patterns and gave them her own twist for the Bizet opera the Pearl Fishers. It was so stimulating; to reflect the music and not over power it.
WT: That’s terrific and that’s why we do what we do.
RF: I know this is the bane of the artist: the title. People have said you’re a ‘Pop artist’ others have said, no, he’s not a ‘Pop artist’ he’s a ‘Realist.’ What do you think of all these titles?
WT: Well, you’re lucky to have people call you anything. I’m just essentially a traditional representational painter, and by that I mean, always interested in imagery, trying to make a representational painting that has as much abstraction as seems to fit that particular mode of representation. The tradition, which is so long enduring, for me, is that which is able to manage those two things, essentially, memory and perception; how to negotiate and orchestrate those two rather extreme dualities. The synthesis that you might make from that is what is for me so fascinating in the long tradition of painting. The thing that influenced me -- one of your other questions was what other things influenced me -- would be poetry, literature, but also sports. The reason for that is central: that’s the concept of empathy, muscularity, kinesis, where a work of painting for me always achieves its results if things like balance, symmetry, grace – based on the human body – our reach, our actions, our bounce, that plumb line of body that tells us when things are skewed or when those vectors operate in space in a certain way. So, you’re tuning the body in terms of growing and rendering light and understanding how illusion operates, when you can’t use illusion, when you are not verifying plasticity of the surface of the two-dimensional surface area, you are trying to reduce the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional surface, which is an impossible idea but a marvelous picture. And when you deal with fictions, you then have to believe in that fiction in your body, in your mind and prove that you are doing that by externalizing it for people to see and experience. If your not going to a Cezanne exhibition and doing this (he moves forward and back in his chair as if dancing with an imaginary partner), but his carving and his trip through space, if you’re not feeling that you’re missing what Cezanne’s perceptual orchestration was about. He’s always trying to find where that thing is. It’s astounding. Sport is a kind of metaphor for a thrill with what the body can do, whether it’s ballet or basketball or golf or tennis, all of those characteristics. So, I’m not liked [by my students] because I make them stand when they paint. Sitting is a whole other thing. At least for a while, I like to get their bodies up and moving and feeling all these touches that they are making on this raw surface are operating themselves. Isn’t that nutty?
RF: No, actually that makes sense. I’ve always heard people talk about athletics that there is a muscle memory…
RF: …so, the more you do something your muscles have a memory for it, and painting is a physical activity. Then you have the memory of your mind to coordinate with your hand. It always seems that if you are searching, though, that that hand never quite does what’s in your head.
RF: I wanted to talk about Diebenkorn – you were friends, right?
WT: Yes. I miss him.
RF: He influenced several artists I know. I have a friend who had the great good fortune to paint with him. I wanted to talk about him and something you said about how Diebenkorn was thought of as provincial for working out in the West, or more precisely, for not working in New York City.
WT: Well, that’s that New York provincialism. You just can’t deny and they can’t deny it. They are uncomfortable with the idea that everyone should be thinking, “Why aren’t I in New York?” They just can’t imagine anyone living elsewhere. And that’s the great thing about New York; it’s one of the greatest places in the world. It’s so easy then to think about regionalism. But in the tradition of painting there were a lot of great hick painters.
RF: Oh, yes, absolutely.
WT: So, they like the idea of calling Diebenkorn’s painting ‘California painting.’ They refer to me as a California artist. And that of course is like saying ‘California mathematics.’ There is only one kind of painting and it’s the whole tradition and Dick loved that so well. He loved the idea of trying to combine Mondrian and Matisse in some reasonable, interesting way; but mainly just sticking to the agonizing process of just trying to get the damn thing right. He was not highly articulate but he was very bright, very well read, loved poetry, loved music. So, that hesitancy in his proceedings was tantamount in giving him the strength to be willing to wait, change, modify, extrapolate, destroy, rebuild. That is the kind of thing which his influence is so useful to painters or to anyone, but that for me was central to his power, and a very great painter.
RF: It was interesting the phases his work went through – and I wanted to talk to you about the phases your work has gone through especially as we look at a 70 year retrospective – his phases were from abstract expressionism, then coming back around and shocking the world by painting realism…
WT: I think that is only shocking to people who have no access to painting. Painting is…it doesn’t matter if it’s abstract or realism, it’s all the same, based on relationships, based on color; all the things are the same. It’s wonderful to think of it in those terms, I think. It can be a great danger. My own sense, I think I’m way too wide. I like to paint anything I want, any time I want, repaint things, paint a pie if I want to, and that understandably drives critics crazy. I’m determined to paint anything I want. We were in Palm Springs before an opening and sitting in a café and a fellow came up from the street and asked, “What is this group, you’re whole family joshing around, what are you doing?” My son said, “That’s my father over there having an exhibition.” “What do you mean exhibition?” “He’s showing paintings at the Palm Desert Museum.” “He is? What’s it called?” “Seventy Years of Painting.” This guy just looked at me and said, “That guy should get a life.” (Laughs) He was dead right, that’s my life. Anyone else, unless you’re highly neurotic, passionate about something…so that’s my take on it. Dick, he always, he was very impatient when his work became formulaic. That’s something you have to guard against. Except, those formulas also are very crucial, you’ve got to work them out, that serialization of a single theme or idea has to go on until it evaporates. You’re only a prostitute when you are doing something out of not loving it. Painting morally persists when its substance is still real and qualitative, and exists there when you’ve done in that instance the best you can do.
RF: And then constant challenging of oneself.
WT: Always. You never can really be still.
RF: Which came first, the pies or the thought to reduce things to simple shapes?
WT: I don’t know; it’s so hard to disentangle something like that. It’s all one piece. When I was in advertising I don’t think I work very much different than I do now except I have a lot more time to work on things and try to get them more interesting or spend more time with them or refine them more or make them crazier without the art director saying you can’t do that.
RF: You were mentioning that with de Kooning it was the reduction of the figure, is that something that when you saw those works for the first time, did that strike a chord or change things for you in some way?
WT: Well, he was very influential in many ways; some of the things I’m saying came from him. He was very impatient with critical writing, for instance, he thought it was mostly nonsense. When you talk about… He said one time, “They say I have ‘non-environmental space.’ What in God’s name does that mean? But it’s a great term so I’m going to use it.” Well, de Kooning was amazingly trained, as you probably know, six years at the Academy where you don’t get a graduation, you have to go before a board and say to them, “I think I’m well trained.” He said, “Can you imagine me saying that? I just snuck off one night.” He was so beautifully trained as a draftsman. Such exquisite use of line, like Holbein, his rendering in charcoal was extraordinarily beautiful, like Chardin still life. He knew a lot of anatomy and design and color. He wanted to be an illustrator, a commercial artist, that’s why he came to New York.
RF: When I see his work, it’s very confrontational. Was that him?
WT: Him? He was trying to be an artist, and that’s dangerous. But he was willing to chance it. He refers to himself – he wanted to take that and use it to look at his painting because it’s a great instruction – ‘I’m a slipping glimpser.’ Perfect term to tell you what he’s trying to do with these elaborate brushstrokes; if the brushstroke stopped, it’s stopped, like this (he suspends his arm still in the air as if holding a brush). And that’s a great thing to look for, what’s underneath? That’s not a generalization, it’s an essentialization. The best thing I ever heard about de Kooning was when someone asked Salvador Dali what he thought of de Kooning and he said something very profound and insightful, he said, “He’s okay if you like blown-up Valasquez details. So, go to Valaquez and look at “Les Enfant” shirt, blow it up and see if you’ve got a de Kooning.” It’s a lesson that if students get it they grow substantially because they begin to think about all these tools that are knowledge, that are so alive, and still possibilities to use just because you enjoy the hell out of it. It’s so great to frost a cake with de Kooning brushstrokes because it has to do with the whole interesting…what is tempo in painting? You don’t think of that because it’s still, but none-the-less integral. Those brushstrokes are the indication of time, the difference in time between two concurrent painters. Rembrandt, still, quiet, dark, very slow and Frans Hals – fall back in the chair. It’s a whole different thing about time – or light. Understanding how rich light has to be in a painting to include as many kinds of light as you can, even in a dark still life. The use of glowing light, glare light, where it’s over-focused, gleam – all those tools of light that you can use in your own painting and enrich it so you don’t settle for easy solutions or one-dimensional attitude. I don’t know…You can see why I’m so interested in teaching. You get with students to some point dealing with questions.
RF: I was wondering about Hopper. I saw the show at the Art Institute…
WT: Was that the one with Homer watercolors?
RF: Yes, across the hall.
WT: Yes, I saw that in Chicago.
RF: You did, too? Well, I felt like I met him after walking through the show. I felt like I met him and I’m not sure how I feel about that. He seemed much more open in his work that he was – from what I’ve read about him – in his life. But the work seemed to really, maybe reflect how he looked at relationships, aside from the art I felt like he bared his soul in the work.
WT: Very good painter. And in art world talk they do him a disservice. Greenberg says something like this, and it’s an art world kind of way of putting down someone but not too far because they are so well considered by so many people…
RF: …so you can’t really say anything too bad…
WT: Right. So, Greenberg says, “If Hopper were a better painter he wouldn’t be such a great artist.” You give that to a student and the student has to puzzle that out. If you are useful to the student, you make sure that he understands something like that because it’s a central question. Why is there a great rage right now that if we want good artists we have to ‘de-skill’ people. What’s that about? It’s about primativism and the use of primativism and how important primativism is. It’s great to celebrate academic drawing but you have to be sure that you indicate the risks of that as well so that people don’t get trapped in it, that they use it properly as a tool that’s going on, as a tool for extrapolation (God, why am I talking so much? Well, I haven’t been teaching for a while.)
RF: Let’s talk about photos. I think this is my own personal bias, but I see work that is clearly just a copy of a photograph and I don’t see the artist pushing himself or trying to do anything else with it. It’s a crutch.
WT: Well, you think, ‘What’s our responsibility?’ First of all, to define the difference between a photograph and a painting: It seems obvious maybe, but they look alike but that’s as far as it goes. Photography takes the world all together as a source and you are, in a sense, taking everything and bringing it down to something – focusing are a limited section, but you start with everything and you make something from that everything. Painting starts with nothing, zero, absolute blank and has to get something. You can get something a lot of different ways, but a painting which exists of its own structure depends on stereoscopic awareness of space, fictional depth, or the lack of it, or the combination – flat round, two-dimensional, three-dimensional. Photography can not do that. Photography also can not introduce into its program the thing we talked about called empathy. The muscularity is not there. So, that is an enormous difference. Learning to draw and to lie is not natural. Painting is an unnatural act. Photography is a natural phenomenon – very important, very rich tradition so far. But also it’s limited in a way in which painting is not limited. With painting you can do absolutely nothing and have a painting. With a minimal amount of marking or issuance or some people even say just the framework, that’s a work of art. That’s the immense prerogative of painting, it’s astounding. Or the most ridiculous kind of sublime effect: the Sistine Chapel. And that’s painting; from nothing to everything. In the sense, if you’re willing to say, it’s a world of its own. So if you are trying to mix the two together, it’s probably okay if you’re Degas, who used photographs, but, how deeply he was trained first to be able to use those options. If you start copying photographs, you’re going to always be on this flat surface, and it’s so easy and so instantaneously available to tell when something is photographically based. You can’t lie about it, you can’t cheat. Yep, photograph…yep, photograph. (He waves his hand dismissively.)
RF: Do you have a photographic memory?
RF: You don’t?
WT: I just spend a lot of time drawing from objects and people and things and then that, like reading a visual dictionary, say, you develop tools. And my paintings are all done from memory of a certain area and from observation, but never from photographs. So, memory to me is a very important adjunct as it was…I mean Degas talks a great deal about memory and most artists do even though you look at there work, [and think] Caravaggio worked from memory? He worked from observation and from memory, and so did Michelangelo. They knew enough about anatomy so they could conjure up the figure. Goya could draw figures in every place and in any clothing because he observed for so long, then he was able to set up a stage and make a painting, put people where he wanted them, doing what he wanted them to do, and like Cecil B DeMillle, created a motion picture.
RF: So memory is something that you really have to train in your own self.
WT: Oh, absolutely. There may be people who have photographic memories, I don’t know. I don’t have a photographic memory.
RF: So, I did ask a number of artists, “If you had the chance to sit opposite Wayne. Thiebaud, what would you say? Everybody did ask, and we talked about this before, who are your influences? Outside of painting, who would you say are your influences, musicians and writers?
WT: Very much so. I love music. I’m not a musician – I play bad guitar, that’s about it, harmonica, but I listen to music.
RF: Do you listen to music while you paint?
WT: Sometimes. I listen to lectures sometimes, books on tape. I’m very interested in poetry and think there is maybe a closer relationship to poetry and painting than people think. Someone once described, if you want to understand literature, poetry is the way to do it. They call it an x-ray of literature in the sense that you see in and around and through in ways that are not readily available and visual. And painting is like that, I think. I think painting also has to define itself in terms of its ability to see things that people have not seen. That I think is crucial. The other thing besides that is the idea of sports. As we described that’s also part of a system of totally immersing yourself in a rich tradition of all those things you can. I try to get my students to read and do some critical writing of other people’s works. I think that’s always a help to begin to write your own reviews so you get set up against what criticism is. There is ideological criticism and formalist criticism; you better understand both of those and the differences, because it’s crucial to know what someone’s critical premise is when they talk about your work. If they are dismissing it as too decorative, for instance, that’s idealistic criticism, which is valid only if it’s understood. Formal criticism is what the tools of painting are about, and I think highly useful. It’s not an end to understanding painting but it is a very important aspect of it.
RF: Are there poets that you particularly enjoy?
WT: Yes, so many that it’s hard to name. Wallace Stevens, Williams, I love Dickenson, so many it’s hard to name…I had a friendship with John Updike. I’ve had good poets as friends. I think it’s interesting the way poets and writers talk about painting sometimes. I think it’s interesting, the New Yorker critic who really is a poet, he’s so fascinated in being a word-smith that it’s hard to tell what he thinks about painting sometimes.
RF: Adam Gopnik?
WT: No, it’s Peter Schjeldahl. No, Adam’s a personal friend. We became friends after he wrote about the work.
RF: …which was fun to read.
WT: I think he’s very good. But, ah, Michael Kimmelman – he comes from music, from the New York Times, he’s a concert pianist, a very good one. So these are all…I think you only get as rich a source of inspiration as you can, because you never know when something is going to help you see something a little differently.
RF: And they are all interrelated, aren’t they? There seems to be some basic principals that cross all boundaries.
RF: One artist wrote: You’ve obviously been very successful…what do you hope people will take away with them?
WT: I hope some pleasure and humor. And, I think, hopefully see that I’m as interested in abstraction as I am in realism; trying to coordinate those two dialectic, which I think is a great challenge. I hope they do get some laughs. I think, for me, that is missing in the art world, tragically.
RF: That we take ourselves too seriously?
WT: I think we take ourselves so seriously that we’re not very serious. If we were we’d be more like W.C. Fields, and we’d learn to better see ourselves as a cartoon, along with all the other things we like to think of ourselves.
RF: Another person asked about the three distinct periods of your work. Are they interconnected?
WT: They are in my mind, certainly. It’s all dealing with problems all the time. And they may look different…I think for me at least, I chose different subject matter because it gives me different problems. In total relationship to me, I see little difference about what they are about, in terms again using those two extremes, abstraction and realism. And they go towards one area or towards the other, and I like the idea of going back and forth. So the change in subject matter has to do with enthusiasms – I get painting too long on a certain thing. Most of the series seem to take a long time. I think the cityscapes were like 16 years. But they are still going on, but they were 14 years before I even showed them. But the Delta Series and the landscapes, there are two different kinds of them, but they went on for some 10-15 years. So to do that I think you have to be, like we talked earlier, aware of the potential of profit from serialization, of being willing to do things over and over again, to make 12 paintings and out of that to chose two or three and destroy the rest, so that you’re using your own critical sense to the degree that you can. You’re never able to criticize yourself as deeply as you should at the moment you are doing it. Witness the fact of how you see it a month later, a year later. ‘Why didn’t I see that then like I see it now?’, which tells you to continue to hone and amplify and enlarge your critical capacity for interrogation.
RF: What do you think is the most important, talent or determination?
WT: Determination. I had a friend tell me one time, I said, “I don’t believe in talent.” He said, “Well, don’t knock it if you don’t have it.” Yes, talent certainly if you are a math person you can’t be Einstein, or a painter, you can’t be Michelangelo, but you can do as well as you can, and use what talent you have. The main thing is to work at it. You can get a lot of talent from working at it.
RF: My boys play hockey—one is a natural but the other is more determined. It’s amazing to see the world through their eyes.
WT: And you want to keep that. So many painters have talked about that, haven’t they, how important childlike awareness and vulnerability is for painting.
RF: Where do you think painting is headed today? You see a lot of students and mature painters, but, if it’s all been done…
WT: I don’t know honestly. It’s such a long tradition, some 30,000 years, starting with the cave period, and it’s such, as we said earlier, such a miraculous thing that that’s enough to convince me that painting is alive and flourishing. People love to say it’s dead, and that’s true; it’s a dead thing, silent, quiet, still, flat thing. You have to be willing to bring it alive either as a spectator or an artist. You look at the painting and you’re the one to determine its aliveness. Those coral Italianate landscape are so alive because you can feel his sludgy brushwork, how that red mud pushes into the rock. If you’re loving painting, that’s enough. I just came back from seeing the Bonnard show, and three hours later you are just struck dumb by his astounding hesitation and love and awareness of what the hell life was about. And how important slowness is. And you understand why we’re just moving toward slower truth, slower life. The race is won by the slow, someone said. Your life – eating, loving, living intimately, slowly, watching the flowers and the grass grow – is central to being a painter, so that when you are painting you’re living, you’re extending your life, you are making your life. This is your one chance to be omnipotent. I’m making this little world myself. How could painting ever die? People will get to the point where they pay no attention to it if we don’t get it back in the school systems and give people access to it, but it will never die on its own. It’s up to people whether they want to make it alive or dead. Also, if you’re going to be a painter you’ve got to learn to draw and stay away from photographs – it’s a little too easy.
Copyright Wayne Thiebaud and Rose Glaser Fredrick
Wayne Thiebaud is represented by the Paul Thiebaud Gallery.