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A burst of sunshine! For its first major offering since catastrophic floods in fall 2021 forced its closure, the Brandywine River Museum of Art reopens with Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings. Filled with mastery and awash with California light, this is a luscious exhibition that celebrates the career of a storied West Coast artist with 100 works that were assembled to mark the artist’s 100th birthday.
Thiebaud, who was born in 1920 and died this past Christmas day, carved a wide swath in the American art world. This is a retrospective stretching over two floors of the museum, the largest gathering of his oeuvre in 20 years and packed with fine work. Early in his career, the artist was associated with the Pop Art movement, and he gained wide recognition in the 1960s for the vivid depictions of cakes, pies, and desserts that have entered the visual lexicon.
Pies, Pies, Pies (1961), the signature image of the exhibition, and Boston Cremes (1962) are luscious oils painted with heavy brush strokes. These works have been widely reproduced, but a flat printed image—except in the oversize vinyl that greets the exhibition viewer—cannot begin to convey their animation, depth, and wry social commentary. From this early era, there are also 13 small, delicate black-and-white etchings (a 1964 series titled Delights) that includes prints like Bacon and Eggs and Banana Splits.
Thiebaud began as a commercial artist working for Disney Studios and on Madison Avenue, something subtly evident throughout his works. Also an influential teacher, he didn’t limit himself to the Pop Art style of his early successes, though as this exhibition shows, he did revisit it throughout his career. The wide-ranging group of works on view at the Brandywine is filled with humor, artistic prowess, and an obvious love for California. And in addition to those accessible and expected “dessert paintings,” the exhibition serves up some delicious surprises.
Portraits, streets, and rivers
Here, the artist’s expansive range—more familiar on the west coast and in New York—is well represented. To introduce Thiebaud to our region, Brandywine curator Audrey Lewis has grouped the diverse exhibition by type of work, not chronology. There is a section of exceptionally fine and illuminating portraits, among them Tapestry Skirt (a depiction of the artist’s wife Betty Jean begun in 1976 and reworked three times until 2003) and the riveting Portrait of Sterling Holloway (1965), an accomplished Hollywood actor and friend of the artist. Self-Portrait (4 Hour Study) is a revealing, very direct 1989 oil on board that the artist amazingly painted in the short time he allotted himself. And there are also several very early works that hint at the career to come.
Surprisingly or not, given his love of California and the fields and orchards of his childhood, some of the most galvanizing works in the exhibition are the strikingly beautiful streetscapes and riverscapes, their exceptional, sometimes hallucinatory detail portrayed from a geometrically skewed overhead perspective. These begin with Street and Shadow (1982-83, reworked in 1996) and carry on throughout his career: Untitled, City View (1993), Brown River (1998), River Lands (2005), River Intersection (2010), and Sunset Streets Study (2019). The highlight of this work is the magnificent, expansive Y River (2010), a show-stopping six-foot-square oil on canvas. These are paintings brimming with light and shadows, odes to San Francisco and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from an omniscient, birds-eye view both individual and universal.
Shining in Chadds Ford
The exhibition also explores Thiebaud’s late-career focus on circus clowns, subjects that allowed the artist to continue and expand his sedulous (though delicate) social commentary and underlay it with subtle pathos and humor. This work begins with Jolly Cones (2002) and continues through Clown Boots (2018-19), one of the most recently created works in the exhibition.
The Brandywine is the fourth stop for this winning show, which moves next to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (Thiebaud’s hometown), the museum that organized this retrospective. There is a very fine catalog of the exhibition, along with a slate of virtual and in-person programs and some charming gift shop items. Thiebaud’s paintings, prints, and drawings are on view until April 10, when spring will undoubtedly be returning to our region. But in Chadds Ford, the sun is shining now.
What, When, Where
Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings. Through April 10, 2022, at Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, PA. $6-$18; children under 6 admitted free. 610-388-2700 or brandywine.org/museum.
Masks are strongly encouraged for all museum visitors, and are available at the visitors’ desk. Timed tickets are required for all non-members.
Brandywine River Museum of Art is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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