Wayne Thiebaud: What is Art? What makes a Great Painting?

Wayne Thiebaud stepped back from his easel, looked at his painting of cakes and pies and said to himself, “that’s really crazy, but no one is going to look at these things anyway.”

When he exhibited them in New York they were an instant hit catapulting him to national attention. It was the beginning of Pop Art. Academics aligned him with Andy Warhol labeling him a Pop artist because he painted popular consumer goods. He said he painted them out of nostalgia; they reminded him of his boyhood and the best of America.

Pies, Pies, Pies. (1961) by Wayne Thiebaud

A prolific painter,  profound thinker and gifted teacher, he’s continued to work unceasingly, inspiring generations of painters. In a 2010 New York Times interview, Mr Thiebaud, then 89, was still painting daily.

In a lecture he gave at the National Gallery of Art, available as a podcast on iTunes, he clarified two questions I’ve been chewing on for decades.

What is Art? What makes a Great Painting?

I remember the day I resolutely titled myself Artist. It was a Saturday morning, I was at Frank and Bud Cone’s having my truck brakes repaired.  As usual I had my sketchbook with me, I was drawing the potted plants — I am artist — wherever I go, whatever I’m doing, I am an artist.

I have no formal training in art, and hence I am a man of no letters, devoid of a calligraphic document from an institution. Daniel Ambrose, having met all requirements satisfactorily of (insert school) is a bonafide Artist.

For years I wrestled with the idea of Artist. And on that fine Saturday morning I finally decided I wasn’t trying to be an artist, I was an artist.

Until about 5 years ago.

The more I studied Art from masterpieces to muck thrown up on museum walls and called Art, the more perplexed I became about the definition of Artist and Art — shock and sensationalism appeared to carry the day.

Where is the craft, the love and soul of art? Seems like any vulgar idea can be thrown in a case or stuck on a wall and called Art.

That’s why its so refreshing to hear a man of Mr. Thiebaud’s stature say he simply painted something that reminded him of the best of America. Which is partially true, a keen student of art history, he immersed himself in the tradition of painting, exploring formalist elements of art using as inspiration images of his childhood.

In his lecture Wayne Thiebaud distances himself from Art saying its a slippery, changing thing. He is not sure what Art is, he calls himself a Painter. And great paintings he summarized, are composed from three worlds  — Art, Real and Self.

Artists make Art? Painters strive to make great paintings.

About 5 years ago I realized I am a Painter interested in conveying my immense appreciation of this transient life, the unanswerable questions, in paint. Striving to paint a singular beauty beyond words. I want to celebrate the best in us not the ugliness.

I’m not going to concern myself anymore about what Art is. From now on I’ll concentrate on what Painting is and can be. Exploring questions that only can be answered in the visual language of paint.

So thank you Mr. Thiebaud for clarifying these nagging questions for me.

From one painter to another.


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