by Hearne Pardee
Pastel Scatter (1972)
Wayne Thiebaud, Drafstman
THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM | MAY 18 – SEPTEMBER 23, 2018
A distillation of pure color and dramatic light effects, Wayne Thiebaud’s Pastel Scatter (1972) seems to be a spontaneous gesture, yet it’s evident that it is rendered in the methodical technique Thiebaud developed in his 1960s paintings of pies and ice cream cones. Like ice cream, pastel has inherent aesthetic appeal. It is a seductive, tactile medium — especially for artists with appetites for color. To lend color, not to mention pastels and ice cream, more than superficial visual allure, Thiebaud sets them in modern critical and formal contexts: a 1962 statement cites his interest in the “starkness and glare” of artificial light, the “lonely togetherness” of food displays, and the way the thick impasto of his white backgrounds isolates objects and emphasizes the picture plane. When applied to cake frosting and ice cream, that impasto reveals “what happens when the relationship between paint and subject matter comes as close together as I can get it . . . making an illusion which grows out of an exploration of the propensities of materials.”
All these considerations apply to Pastel Scatter, and to Pastel Rows, a companion piece completed in the same year. Without the physicality of impasto, pastel can’t be as “close” as oil paint to frosting or ice cream, yet by using pastel to represent the medium of pastel, Thiebaud establishes a seamless relationship between subject and medium. Pastel invites bodily metaphors, and the softly modulated contours in Rows suggest the sensitive surface of skin itself. Indebted to Thiebaud’s increased work from the human figure after 1962, when he considered himself “not much of a colorist,” this new work shows the influence of Matisse and Bonnard, and also of American color abstraction. Thiebaud endows each crayon with its own illumination and spatial inflection as though feeling his way across the table’s surface. Depiction is indirect and complex; even the highly saturated red, green and yellow pastels near the left edge, the closest to sheer indexical materiality, are inflected with shadows and reflections. Thiebaud even infuses conventional shading with unexpected color juxtapositions, like the gray band separating the blue reflection and yellow highlight on the central, pinkish pastel crayon, or the striking green shadow on the broken end of the yellow one to its left, whose crisp rendition in colored planes evokes the close calibration of Josef Albers’s abstractions.
Thiebaud cultivates tension between his tactile, bas-relief portraits of individual pastel crayons and the overall optical perspective of the table top. While Rows establishes a spatial progression with its two reasonably orderly ranks, Scatter replaces the “lonely togetherness” of repetitive units with informally choreographed groups that generate a push-pull, which engage picture plane as much as the table. If the horizontal yellow crayon, the foreshortened orange one next to it, and the vertically pointed blue fragment below it set up an implied grid, there’s no overall consistency: the orange pastel seems too large relative to its neighbors, and the table seems to slant to the lower right, where a higher viewpoint prevails. Anticipating the multiple views of his later landscapes, Thiebaud resorts to a constantly shifting ground and planes. The result is an improvisatory, rhythmic composition, punctuated by bright red and yellow fragments, recalling Joan Mitchell’s pastels of landscape-based abstractions. Yet, its varied, angular groupings suggest the choreography of Merce Cunningham—abstractly generated but rooted in the body, and set within a larger context of common experience.
Donald Judd gave a respectful but mixed review to Thiebaud’s 1962 exhibition (neither fully “gross” like Oldenburg nor fully “ironic” like Lichtenstein), seeing in Thiebaud’s engagement with materials some kinship to his own efforts to embody colors in “specific objects”. Thiebaud, in contrast, aspires in his 1962 statement to the role of “magician,” albeit one who lets viewers see themselves being tricked. The higher magic in Pastel Scatter consists not in making paint into frosting but in making a green shadow believable and negotiating spatial inconsistencies in the non-Euclidean realm of hand-made forms. In other words, his point is to make these “specific objects” convincing. That sort of conviction arises not from realism but from the poetic function located by Meyer Schapiro in the arena of “field and frame” discussed in “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Sign” (1969). In this way, Thiebaud creates a framework for wider efforts, including those of Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, to integrate abstraction and representation after Abstract Expressionism.
Hearne Pardee is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.