Sacramento Municipal Utilities District Headquarters
Acquavella Galleries | October 1 – November 21, 2014
I recently visited with Wayne Thiebaud as he prepared to travel to New York for his current exhibition at Acquavella Galleries; our conversation turned to public projects, and he asked if I knew of his 1957 mural on the headquarters of the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) building. I didn’t, and he said it was quite a large project—250 feet long. Like most people, I think of Thiebaud, who’s now 93, in terms of his well-known paintings of desserts, figures, and landscapes, which predominate in his small retrospective show at Acquavella. But generally neglected in these and other surveys of his long career are the ’50s, when he worked under the sway of Abstract Expressionism, the decade leading up to his adoption of bold, cleanly articulated forms.
Wayne proposed driving to the site. He had trouble finding it, and we had to appeal to our G.P.S., a technology unfamiliar to him, as he drove cautiously along the freeway. “Water City” covers two sides and most of the front of SMUD headquarters’ exterior ground floor. It’s an imposing building, designed by Dreyfuss & Blackford and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Just as the building marked a major step in the post-war expansion of Sacramento, it offered a chance for a young Sacramento artist to make a significant statement.
Thiebaud’s credentials at the time included public work each summer with his students from Sacramento Junior College at the California State Fair, where he produced murals and silkscreen demonstrations. Always interested in translation from one medium to another, he explored the possibilities of screen-printing, or serigraphy, which was then made by hand rather than with photography. In prints that prefigured “Water City” he sometimes borrowed gestural marks from his brush drawings of Mexican marketplaces or bathers at the beach to improvise abstractions, much as David Park and Richard Diebenkorn shifted between representational and abstract styles.
Essentially a gouache sketch translated into the ancient, permanent medium of mosaic, “Water City” pays tribute to Sacramento’s two rivers. It lends public scale to the artist’s early gestural style, full of youthful exuberance and a certain cartoon craziness. It foreshadows his long involvement with the city where he still resides, and exhibits a knack for engaging the popular imagination that’s fueled his rise to national prominence.
Fifteen feet high, “Water City” is organized along a horizontal axis set just above the center of the field, with buildings, boats and their reflections massed above and below, and suggestions of ripples carrying the eye towards the edges. Thiebaud doesn’t use the large shapes of muralists like Léger or Miro, but leaves scattered marks and splashes, like Abstract Expressionist drips, which a team of mosaic craftsmen in Italy faithfully rendered in eccentric, cut-out shapes. (They used an enlarged drawing of Thiebaud’s original 12 by 36-inch gouache, with shapes numerically coded for colors.) Thiebaud works hard to incorporate the vast overall field, using diagonal ripple marks below and clouds above, rendered in calligraphic notation and leavened by white intervals that provide the composition’s fuel. While he admires the Mexican muralists, Thiebaud here has more in common with Raoul Dufy’s huge but delicately rendered “Fée Electricité,” an oil painting completed for the Paris International
Exposition in 1937.
Thiebaud constantly varies the compositional components; motifs reappear, but in new configurations, over the 250-foot span. A lively suggestion of city life develops, as lines of colored tiles gently intermesh, while floating shapes of lavender and yellow suggest the lights of the buildings coming on at sunset. Red-orange tiles evoke the heat of Sacramento’s summer, and irregular rafts of pink or lavender offer fantasy shapes, glyphs that encourage us to envision mosques or Venetian gondolas. On the western wall, vertically aligned dots suggest antennas and the airborne transmission of electrons, the invisible energy that animates this flickering metropolis.
In 1951, Thiebaud had exhibited at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Gallery (now Crocker Museum), with a show significantly entitled Influences on a Young Painter; the title reflects the deliberation with which he’s always approached his career (at the time he was still enrolled under the G.I. Bill at California State University Sacramento). A visit to New York in 1956 led to decisive developments, inspired by first hand contact with Willem de Kooning, who impressed him with his directness, and by the fact that he also had started out in commercial art. De Kooning and other New York artists’ wide-ranging conversations about painting encouraged Thiebaud to enlarge his ambitions.
Around 1960, things come into focus, in what Thiebaud terms his “formal” style. The current Acquavella show, featuring 44 works dating back over 50 years in a variety of media, demonstrates the strength and consistency of that restrained focus on clearly defined, vernacular shapes, frontally composed, with colors glinting through thick impasto rather than spontaneously scattered. But along with subjects in this more finished style are densely worked images of bathers and beach dogs, completed over the past decade, that hark back to his gestural approach and suggest that he still entertains conflicting impulses and is willing to abandon his self-imposed restraint to work out unresolved questions about painting. In “Referee” (1980 - 81), a sort of Norman Rockwell character but with no trace of anecdote, an artist willing to disobey his own rules lends tongue-in-cheek severity to an authority figure.
Thiebaud lingered at his mural, looking, perhaps reflecting on the teeming alternative vision that he’d realized on such monumental scale but also on the issues it raises today. “Water City” embodies the pure, abstracted play of youthful spontaneity, but a more complex sort of play is at work at Acquavella. In “Triangle Beach” (2003 - 5) distant bathers are constrained by the abstract geometry of an angular shoreline arbitrarily imposed on their recreation, as though by the willful play of a child. Linked to memories of Laguna Beach, it embodies the expressive spontaneity and curiosity that sustain his reworking of familiar themes.
HEARNE PARDEE is a painter based in New York and Northern California.