City Streets That Plunge and Curve

DURING the 1960s, Wayne Thiebaud became famous for painting simple objects. He has given us row upon row of lipsticks, pies, and club sandwiches, and his admirers find those paintings easy to like. Thiebaud might say that it wasn't easy to paint those simple-looking pictures, but he would agree that his pies and hot dogs suggest that the world is a comfortable, safe place. Most of his landscape paintings look as stable as his still lifes. The pale green grass of northern California lies like a carpet over hills that are not very different from his cakes. In Thiebaud's best-known and best-loved paintings, any solid object is much like another, and the whole world is there for our enjoyment.

Over the past 15 years, however, he has also been painting marvelously complicated views of San Francisco. He likes to do the same subjects over and over, with an artist's hope that he will finally get one painting completely right. At the same time, he is afraid of becoming staid and conventional, and in the streets of San Francisco he has found a subject that allows him to indulge his craving for adventure.

The idea came to him out of real life. In 1974, he and his wife bought a house in San Francisco. For more than 30 years he had lived in Sacramento whose topography is relatively flat. San Francisco is famous for its steep hills, and when Thiebaud took walks in his new neighborhood he could hardly overlook the bizarre angles at which streets came together.

His first thought was to go outside with an easel and set down on canvas the fantastic environment in which he lived. Captured one brushstroke at a time, however, the precise reality of San Francisco turned out to be less exhilarating than Thiebaud had hoped. The city of his daydreams still existed, but as a painter he felt weighed down by the details of a truck or a tree that might be in front of him.

He remembered that Edward Hopper, one of the most admired of American painters, had brought together elements of different scenes to make a composite picture, and felt encouraged to create his own San Francisco. Working in his studio, he made preliminary drawings and then paintings that combined several imaginary views. He felt free to discard or alter much of the everyday detail that had encumbered his open-air paintings.

Somewhat to his surprise, viewers told him that one or another fantasy view resembled a real intersection. Gradually he realized that his paintings were true to the experience of San Francisco, if not to every observed fact. Today he thinks of his San Francisco cityscapes as caricatures that tell the underlying truth.

Before he became a painter, Thiebaud drew cartoons, and he is still fascinated by cartooning. Although he is much admired as a realistic painter, he thinks of his hot dogs and sandwiches, as well as his San Francisco hillsides, as examples of a cartoonist's tendency to simplify forms. To Thiebaud, a cartoon, a still life, and an abstract painting have much in common.

Unlike his jelly apples, however, Thiebaud's San Francisco does not lie still. Lines curve and plunge in all directions, while fragmentary areas of color combine to form a vast mosaic that never invites the eye to rest. Thiebaud's cityscapes suggest the idea of excess; either he is out of control, or the city is.

Chance-taking and exaggeration are precisely what Thiebaud means by these paintings. Both as a real city and as a subject for painting, San Francisco seems at once exhilarating and unstable. Thiebaud continues to paint small objects that stand still, and his admirers like them.

San Francisco offers Thiebaud a way to express the uneasiness that coexists with his well-known charm and simplicity.

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