We’ve all seen the graph before. It’s a line that rises like a mountainside, spikes and plummets its way uphill from 1896—the year the
industrial average was created—peaks in late 2007 and then declines slightly to bring us to the present day. It’s the path of the Dow’s 114-year history, and I mention it because, if one chops off that little dip at the end, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the mountain slopes in three of
’s most recent paintings.
Coincidence? Maybe. But the slope doesn’t always take the same exact shape: In “Layered Ridge,” it’s condensed and elongated, while in “Dark Ridge” and “Snowy Ridge,” it slices a square canvas diagonally in half. And these pieces hang beside others that seem to refer back to Thiebaud’s earlier days, when his subject matter—cakes, confections, and candies in paint so thick it looks like frosting—spoke more directly to our personal relationships with America’s economy.
Washed in glowing West Coast light, rendered in synthetically brilliant colors and arrayed on smooth, spotless surfaces, those older works inform the new. “Timber Top” and “Layered Mountain,” for instance, are both shaped more like tall cakes than mountains, and they appear as if on display, filling the center of the canvas with nothing else to distract from their stratified majesty.
The message hiding inside Thiebaud’s fully stocked pastry cases—focusing the ways we internalized mid-century economics—was the pervading belief that America’s postwar bounty was for the taking, and required only that people reach out and make it their own. Infused in the Golden State’s golden light, those cakes seem within reach, despite the invisible barrier that separates the viewer from them: the cost of purchase. A fascination with edges (and therefore separation) is everywhere, visible in the variously colored bright lines that rim his cake plates and contrast smooth monochrome sections of each identical slice. The fascination is even more potently present in the invisible glass pane the mind inevitably inserts between the viewer and the items in the display case. Thiebaud’s edges are only more apparent now, with primary colors vying for space along his ridges while the earth and sky that flank them appear as flattened expanses. Everything depends on that booming-and-busting edge.
Together, these details show that the irony at the core of the paintings for which Thiebaud is famous, the coldness that undercut the daydream, is still as much a part of his creative work as ever. If it’s not, then he’s simply applying his signature painting style to pastoral and wilderness scenes, pandering to popular aesthetics and riding on the strength of his name. This does seem to be the case in a few pieces, such as “Menu Rose,” a rosy diner-tabletop scene that just feels nostalgic. But perhaps more at fault is the curation, which places his new work beside older landscapes in the 30-piece show. This doesn’t seem like the most appropriate way to put the newest work in context.
The new series might make more sense beside his most visually dramatic dessert pieces by highlighting the difference between the optimism of the 1960s and ’70s, reflected in the perfectly displayed treats, with the darkness that has since settled in and that is revealed in his new work.
Forty years later, the dozen new paintings in “Mountains” indicate no sense of availability. Instead, the slopes are precipitously steep, jagged and shadowed in muddied colors. Mixing the plastic hues of Thiebaud’s palette doesn’t seem possible without creating a sense of ugly unease, and what could be more perfect for the new reality of our economy? The spoils of the good life are still out there, he seems to say; the mountaintop is visible. But don’t expect an easy climb.