Sunday, July 22, 2018

Salt and Silver, Early Photography, 1840-1860 at the Yale Center for British Art



Salt and Silver, Early Photography,1840-1860


The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven CT.

June 28, 2018 to September 17, 2018


Reviewed by Ed Voves

In art, as in the rest of life, timing is everything.

The Yale Center for British Art is currently presenting an exhibition on the birth of photography during the years following 1839. In that year, two distinct forms of "fixing an image" were created. The timing of these startling innovations was impeccable, just in time to record the Victorian age!

The Yale exhibition, Salt and Silver, Early Photography, 1840-1860, showcases rare early photos from the collection of the Wilson Center of Photography in London. The exhibit focuses on the photographic innovations of the English aristocrat, William Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and notable successors including Robert Adamson and Roger Fenton. 


Ed Voves, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Salt and Silver exhibit
 at the Yale Center for British Art.

During the 1830's, as we will comment upon in some detail, Talbot experimented with creating or "fixing" an image. Talbot initially called his endeavor "photogenic drawing." 
Using a small, crude box camera, Talbot focused the lens to project an image on to a piece of paper, placed inside. The paper had been soaked in salt water and then brushed with a solution of silver nitrate. This recipe rendered the paper photo-sensitive - thus giving the Yale exhibit its unusual name.

Talbot was a true polymath, what we would call a Renaissance man. He was expert in solving mathematical equations and the study of ancient cuneiform writing. For good measure, Talbot was elected to Parliament in 1832.

As a result of his wide-ranging interests and duties,Talbot devoted only a portion of his time to experiments with "photogenic drawing." He only went public with his discoveries after the French artist, Louis Daguerre, introduced his method of "fixing" an image on silver-plated sheets of copper. 

Daguerre was something of an opportunist, but to be fair, he had been at work on finding a photographic process longer than Talbot. Beginning in the mid-1820's, Daguerre collaborated with a brilliant French scientist, Nicéphore Niépce. A "light painting," the world's first experimental photograph, was made by Niépce in 1827 but he died in 1833. Daguerre carried on with the research and in January 1839, he demonstrated his photographic technique.

Talbot was rather chagrined to be bested in a competition that he had not realized even existed. Moreover, his salt-based images compared unfavorably with the clarity of Daguerre's photos. Talbot introduced a more light-sensitive paper and, at the suggestion of Britain's leading scientist, Sir John Herschel, he used hyposulfite of soda as a "fixer" for his images. The September 1840 experiment was a complete success. “Hypo" is still used today in the process of keeping black-and-white prints from fading.

Talbot called his new and improved process, calotypes, from the Greek word for beautiful, kalos. Calotypes, also called "Talbotypes," marked the introduction of the negative-based version of photography. Many prints of a photo could be produced from a negative rather than just one, as was the case with Daguerreotypes.

Despite these improvements, calotypes remained vulnerable to fading. Talbot was vigilant with quality control and actually convened a group of experts called the "Fading Committee" to deal with the problem. He also spent much of his later years developing the photogravure process which enabled photos to be reproduced and printed as illustrations in books and magazines. 

With the massed production methods of the Industrial Revolution now underway, William Fox Talbot’s techniques were unveiled at the most propitious moment that could be imagined. He was a true scientific revolutionary, while remaining emotionally rooted in the Romantic-era mindset of his personal hero, Sir Walter Scott.



William Fox Talbot, The Photographer’s Daughter, Ela Theresa Talbot, 1843–44

Talbot's calotypes, like the 1843 portrait of his daughter, Ela Theresa, combine startling realism with an otherworldly nuance. When you focus on little Ela's well-delineated hands, you can almost sense the feel of the fabric of her dress on her hands. Yet her face, with its deep-set eyes, belongs in a different dimension of reality.

These comments are based on a subjective interpretation of the circumstances of the "fixing" of this image. Ela Theresa was eight years old when this photo was taken. It must have been an excruciating ordeal to hold her pose long enough for her father to "fix" her image. Likewise, the fact that Talbot used salted paper accounts for its hazy, ghost-like aspect.

It has to be admitted, however, that all photos are "ghosts" of the image they fix. Regardless of the technique or materials used, photographs are but faint traces of what was.To achieve that effect motivated Talbot to set about trying to discover a way to "cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper."

In 1833, Talbot endeavored to use a camera lucida, a draftsman's tool which projected an image on a sketchbook so that it could be more readily drawn.This experiment was not a success. Talbot was grieved that he could never fully capture “the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus — fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away.”  



William Fox Talbot, Scene in a Paris Street, 1843

Talbot's calotypes retained an element of "fairy pictures" even as he increasingly found ways to make these images more durable. Yet, he was a man of science and he set about "fixing" all manner of images from the construction of the column honoring Lord Nelson in London's Trafalgar Square to Paris street sciences to botanical specimens and classical busts in the British Museum. 



William Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature,1844–46
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art - Not on view in Salt & Silver exhibit

Talbot may have come in second to Daguerre but he was the first to publish a book illustrated with photos. Published as a series between 1844 and 1846, The Pencil of Nature, is recognized today as the "Gutenberg Bible" of photography.

The decade of Talbot's great achievements was not a time for relaxed, ivory-tower research. The "Hungry 40's" were marked by deadly cholera epidemics, the Irish Potato Famine and the beginning of organized labor centering on the Chartist petition to Parliament. The ideal of "the People" was making itself felt.

Talbot's calotype methods was used by two Scotsmen, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, to document the lives of Scotland's "people."  A colleague of Talbot, Sir David Brewster, taught the calotype process to Adamson, barely into his twenties and looking to make his mark. Hill, a veteran painter, was more dubious. But Adamson convinced him to use photo portraits of Scottish clergymen as source material for painting a group portrait. In short order, Hill embraced photography with the "faith of the converted."

The painting, when it was completed years later, was a "dud." But the calotype portraits were hailed as an immediate triumph.

“The pictures produced are as Rembrandt’s but improved,” declared the  watercolorist John Harden after seeing Hill and Adamson’s calotypes. He was only slightly exaggerating.


David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, Newhaven Fisherman, ca. 1845

Hill and Adamson next focused their attention on the fishing village of Newhaven, home to some of Scotland's most rugged seamen and their redoubtable wives. This extraordinary documentation of the nobility and humanity of everyday people - the "laboring classes" - has never been surpassed, even by the WPA photographers during America's Great Depression almost a century later.



David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, Mrs. Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall, ca. 1843-45

The possibilities and potential of photography were being explored and tested in ways that were strikingly modern and democratic. In a few short years, the dynamic team of Hill and Adamson made over three thousand photographs. 

Then tragedy struck. Adamson died in 1848, aged twenty-six. One of the great artistic partnerships of all time was cut-short in its first flowering.

In 1855, at the suggestion of Prince Albert, Roger Fenton was sent to record the military campaign against Russia in the Crimean War. For the first time, an authentic view of the insanity of war was made possible.



Roger Fenton, Captain Lord Balgonie, Grenadier Guards,1855

That is exactly what we see on the beleaguered face of Lord Balgonie of the Grenadier Guards. Much of the Crimean War was fought in trenches similar to World War I, with bone-numbing cold adding to the horror. Lord Balgonie looks out at us with what modern psychologists call the "thousand-yard stare." He died shortly after the war from his wounds.

The sharpness of Fenton's images was the result of a new innovation in photography. Glass plates were used as negatives, despite their bulk and fragility. Amazingly, a British officer in India, Linnaeus Tripe, used glass plate negatives under very difficult conditions for his topographical study of the ancient temples and buildings of India and Burma. 



Linnaeus Tripe, Puthu Mundapum, View of the Nave.Trimul Naik’s choultry, 1858

Tripe also used waxed-paper negatives, another in the proliferating innovations of photography. By 1860, the point at which the Yale exhibit ends, Talbot's calotypes were seldom used. In 1858, John Wheeley Gough Gutch "fixed" the image of the ruins of Tintern Abbey, using a glass plate negative. It was very much in the spirit of Talbot's work, modern in technique, romantic in spirit.



John Wheeley Gough Gutch, Abbey Ruins [Tintern Abbey], ca. 1858

In later life, as we have seen, William Fox Talbot devoted most of his available time and energy developing the photogravure process. Considering the flood of images which now engulfs the modern world, Talbot's accomplishments in the realm of printing are almost as important as his innovations in photography.

The curators of Salt and Silver wisely refrained from prolonged study of the development of photogravure. The exhibit also does not examine the way that Victorian painters used photography as an inspiration for their work. A recent Tate Britain exhibition, Painting with Light, covered that topic with a comparative display of Victorian paintings and photos in 2016.

Because of their sensitivity to light, calotypes can rarely be shown. We therefore have a lot to be grateful for to the Yale Center for British Art for presenting this wonderful display of the founding works of photography.

Salt and Silver is a magical exhibition devoted to a truly "magic" moment in the history of art.The birth of photography occurred just as the modern world made its presence felt in the shape of the Industrial Revolution. Photography was there, at the ready, to make a record. 

William Fox Talbot opened our eyes just in the nick of time.

***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved  
                                                                      
Introductory Image:                                                                                               
William Henry Fox Talbot (British:1800–1877), Nelson’s Column Under Construction, Trafalgar Square, April 1844. Salted paper print from paper negative, courtesy of Wilson Centre for Photography

Ed Voves, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 18401860 exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art.

William Henry Fox Talbot (British:1800–1877), The Photographer’s Daughter, Ela Theresa Talbot, 1843–44. Salted paper print from paper negative. Courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography

William Henry Fox Talbot (British:1800–1877), Scene in a Paris Street, 1843. Salted paper print from paper negative. Courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography

William Henry Fox Talbot (British:1800–1877), The Pencil of Nature,1844–46. Subscription book issued in separate fascicles. Illustrated with salted paper prints from paper negatives. 15.2 x 20.3 cm (6 x 8 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Jean Horblit, in memory of Harrison D. Horblit, 1994. #1994.197.1–.6

David Octavius Hill (British:1802-1870) & Robert Adamson (British:1821-1848) Newhaven Fisherman (Alexander Rutherford, William Ramsay & John Liston), ca.1845. Salted paper print from paper negative, Courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography

David Octavius Hill (British: 1802-1870) & Robert Adamson (British:1821-1848) Mrs. Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall, Newhaven Fishwife, ca. 1843-45. Salted paper print from paper negative. Courtesy of the Wilson Center of Photography

Roger Fenton (British: 1819–1869), Captain Lord Balgonie, Grenadier Guards,1855. Salted paper print from glass plate negative. Courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography

Linnaeus Tripe (British: 1822–1902), Puthu Mundapum, View of the Nave.Trimul Naik’s choultry, 1858. Salted paper print from glass plate negative. Courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography

John Wheeley Gough Gutch (British: 1809–1862), Abbey Ruins [Tintern Abbey], ca. 1858. Salted paper print from glass plate negative. Courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Baseball Americana at the Library of Congress

   


 Baseball Americana

The Library of Congress 

  Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington D.C.


June 29, 2018 -  Summer 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

What would you pick as a great work of art? Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring or Turner's Rain, Steam Speed? Rodin's Burgers of Calais
                                                                                             
How about Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch of the long fly ball hit by Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series? Or would you prefer Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak during the summer of 1941?

Normally, great moments of sport and of art don't mix. This summer is an exception as the Library of Congress is mounting a hugely enjoyable exhibition entitled Baseball Americana. Coinciding with the 2018 All Star Game, which will be played in Washington D.C., the exhibit is an insightful look at a form of athletic competition that is indeed a form of art.



American League All Star team, Griffith Stadium, Washington, D.C., July 7,1937. At far-left is Lou Gehrig, who died tragically in 1941.

The Library of Congress has a vast trove of baseball-related documents, pictures, posters books and memorabilia. These include the two first edition copies, required by U.S. law to be deposited at the Library of Congress, of the lyrics and sheet music of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Baseball goes back a long way in time before Katie Casey's obsession with America's national pastime. This is recounted in the verses of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, written in 1908 by the Tin Pan Alley veteran, Jack Norworth. The only part of Take Me Out to the Ballgame which is sung today is the chorus.



Sheet music cover of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, 1908


Take me out to the ball game,                                                                                          Take me out with the crowd;                                                                                            Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,                                                                           
 I don't care if I never get back.
                                                                                                                                      
According to the exhibit text, ball and bat games can be traced back to the Middle Ages. There are some references to ball games in letters written by Revolutionary War soldiers. But the first definitive account of a baseball game occurs in a 1786 diary by a student at the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University.

John Rhea Smith enjoyed the March 22, 1786 game but he did not have much luck either fielding or hitting. In his diary, Smith wrote, "A fine day play baste ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball.”



Ed Voves, (Photo 2018) A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1787)
The first illustration of a baseball game appears on the right-hand page.

A year after Smith's less-than-stellar "baste ball" game, a publisher in Worcester, Massachusetts, printed an illustrated children's book, A Little Pretty Pocket Book. Originally published in England, it shows the first-ever picture of a "Base-Ball” game. Wooden posts serve as the bases. Despite American mythology to the contrary, it is clear that baseball is English in its origins. That might seem "not quite cricket" but the evidence in the Library of Congress exhibit is fairly conclusive.

During the years of the early Republic, a number of forms (and spellings) of baseball were played. One set of rules stipulated that the game be played until the first team scored twenty-one runs. But as the United States split into two feuding camps, North and South, the "republic" of baseball witnessed the face-off of two major rivals, the Massachusetts Game and the New York Game. The Massachusetts version had a long pedigree but the New York Game eventually gained public favor.

The key date in the triumph of the New York Game was January 22, 1857. On that day, representatives of fourteen New York area teams met to create “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball.”



Baseball's Magna Carta, the rules composed by Daniel "Doc" Adams,1856

The captain of the Knickerbockers, Daniel Adams (1814-1900), submitted a succinct, forceful set of rules which was then debated. "Doc" Adams - he was a medical doctor - carried the day, since most of what he proposed was adopted.

Point #4 illustrates the clarity and practical genius which the good "Doc" brought to his set of proposed rules.

4. The Base from which the ball is struck shall be designated the "Home" Base, and must be directly opposite to the second base. The first base must always be that upon the right hand, and the third base upon the left hand of the striker, when occupying his position at the Home base.

What Adams proposed, the team representatives debated, pro and con. Their decisions have stood the test of time. Each game would be played for nine innings by teams of nine players. The team which scored the most "aces" (as runs were called in that era) by the end of the ninth inning would be the victor. It was also decided that the playing field would be diamond-shaped, with bases set 90 feet apart.



Miss Schnall sliding to first. Miss Morgan on bag, 1913
Vintage photo from the archives of the Library of Congress.

By the time the meeting of the New Yorkers concluded, the game of baseball as we know it had been created.


Another Knicks representative, William H. Grenelle, recorded the debate on pages of light blue stationary. This document, along with Adams's proposal, remained in Grenelle's possession. When he died in 1890, these pages covered in cursive penmanship were preserved by his family. The Grenelle family evidently was not aware of the enormous historical significance of the documents.


The New York 1857 rules are nothing less than the Magna Carta of Baseball.


When the New York 1857 rules were auctioned in April 2016, Hayden J. Trubitt, a corporate lawyer in San Diego, did grasp their importance. Trubitt took a mortgage on his house to buy the documents for $3.2 million.




Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Display of the 1856-57 rules for Baseball.

Mr. Trubitt graciously loaned his treasure to the Library of Congress where it anchors the Baseball Americana exhibition. These “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball” are so crucial that it would seem beside the point to emphasize their importance. Yet, there is so much to see and enjoy in this exhibit that is easy to pass-by these hand-written documents with hardly a notice.


As you might expect, there is a massed array of baseball gear on view: vintage fielder’s gloves that look like oven mitts, a “then and now” face-off of catchers’ masks and a pair of Babe Ruth’s shoes with cleats better suited to climbing Mount Everest than playing in the outfield of Yankee Stadium.


I was particularly impressed with a poster advertising an Independence Day Game back in 1879 between two Boston-area teams. Note that the archaic spelling, “Base Ball,” continued in use for a long time during the 1800’s.




Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Poster for "Grand Baseball Match!", Concord, Massachusetts
 Diamond Base Ball Club of Boston vs.Concord Base Ball Club

Note also the emphasis on the words “Official” and “Executive Committee.” Constant resort to authority was needed to prevent “Base Ball” players from backsliding to early versions of the game. It took a long time and plenty of umpires to suppress the temptation to throw-out a base-running “striker” by throwing the ball at him!



African-American baseball team from Morris Brown College, Atlanta, Georgia, c. 1900

It took even longer for African-Americans to gain recognition for their playing ability. A compelling photo from 1900 of a baseball team from Morris Brown College in Georgia illustrates the pre-Jackie Robinson era of baseball history.


As a result of Jackie Robinson's epic 1947 success breaking the “color bar,” the door opened for other outstanding African American players to make their mark in baseball's Major Leagues. It was a poignant moment at the press preview to see the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, posing beneath a photo of her favorite player, Willie Mays.



Ed Voves, Photo (2018)
Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, at the Baseball Americana press preview

Carla Hayden is the first woman, as well as the first African American, to hold the post of Librarian of Congress. It is doubly significant, then, that the role of women in playing the game is highlighted in the Library of Congress.  Baseball-crazy women have never just cajoled boyfriends to "take me out to the ballgame" as Katie Casey did in the song. They want to get in on the action too.



Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Display of women's baseball memorabilia.
The uniform of "Dottie" Keys of the Rockford Peaches is at right.

The curators of Baseball Americana have done an outstanding job covering both the wide-range of America's national pastime and focusing on key features of the game. Little League, sandlot teams, softball, El Béisbol, the great films about baseball like Pride of the Yankees, baseball "bloopers", an interactive exhibit designed by ESPN's Statistics and Information Group which enables visitors to check on significant batting and pitching achievements. Everything about "Our Game" is here.

My visit to Baseball Americana at the Library of Congress brought back many vivid baseball memories. Memories of the games I've watched, of trips to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, of "swingin' and missin'" at picnic games just as John Rhea Smith enjoyed "a fine day play baste ball" back in 1786. Most of all, Baseball Americana prepared my mind and heart for the special magic of the umpire's words:

"Play ball!"

***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  
Introductory Image:

Walter Johnson, Washington Nationals, baseball card portrait, 1911. American Tobacco Company.  1 print : chromolithograph with hand-color.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.   http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007685707/
  
American League All Star team, Griffith Stadium, Washington, D.C., July 7, 1937. Photograph by Harrison & Ewing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/hec.22989/

Sheet music cover  of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, by Albert Von Tilzer (composer) and Jack Norworth (lyricist), 1908. The New York Music Co., New York, 1908,  Sheet music:  6 p., 11 x 14 in. Library of Congress Music Division  https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200033481/

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Photo of “Base-Ball,” from  A Little Pretty Pocket Book, 1787. Worcester, Massachusetts : Isaiah Thomas, Publisher, 1787. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Manuscript of the  "Laws of Base Ball”, composed by Daniel “ Doc” Adams, December 1856. On loan to the Library of Congress, courtesy of Hayden Trubitt, San Diego, California .

New York female "Giants". Miss Schnall sliding to first. Miss Morgan on bag,  c.1913. 1 photographic print. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Baseball Americana exhibit, showing the draft manuscripts of “Laws of Base Ball” by Daniel “ Doc” Adams, December 1856, and William Grenelle’s “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball,” 1857. On loan to the Library of Congress, courtesy of Hayden Trubitt, San Diego, California .

Concord Base Ball Club. 4th of July, 1879! Grand Base Ball Match! Broadside. Concord, Massachusetts, June 26, 1879. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)  https://www.loc.gov/exhibitions/baseball-americana/exhibition-items/

African American baseball players from Morris Brown College, with boy and another man standing at door, Atlanta, Georgia, c. 1900. From the album (disbound): Negro life in Georgia, U.S.A., compiled and prepared by W.E.B. Du Bois, v. 4, no. 337.  1 photographic print : gelatin silver. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95507100/

Ed Voves, Photo (2018), Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, at the press preview for the Baseball Americana exhibit, June 27, 2018.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Baseball Americana exhibit, showing memorabilia relating to women’s baseball, including the uniform of Dorothy Ferguson Key (1923–2003), Rockford Peaches, All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, 1945–1954. Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman at the Morgan Library and Museum


Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman


Morgan Library and Museum
May 18, 2018 - September 23, 2018
                                                                       
Reviewed by Ed Voves                                                                                                    Photos by Anne Lloyd

As I reflected on the Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, a jingle from my movie-addicted youth popped into my head.


"Let's all go the lobby and get a tasty treat!"


The dancing ice cream bar, the cheerful looking soda cup and, most of all, the popcorn container (sometimes depicted with a big smear of lipstick and "come hither" eyes) appeared on the silver screen in 1957. Its aim was to entice film fans to buy over-priced edibles. The movie ad is an unforgettable example of the power of suggestion.


So too are many of Wayne Thiebaud's drawings on view at the Morgan. Thiebaud, already an established artist, gained acclaim - and sales - in a 1962 New York City gallery show filled with images of America's favorite desserts and snacks. These instantly recognizable pictures of slices of pie and cake, hot dogs, candy apples and ice cream cones testify to the powerful appeal to indulge our taste buds. 


There is, however, a lot more to Thiebaud's work. Initially, he was styled as a Pop artist due to superficial similarities to Andy Warhol's soup can paintings and prints. Thiebaud never rejected being affiliated with Pop Art but emphasized his links to Realism.


"I see myself as a traditional painter," Thiebaud declared in a 1974 interview. "I’m very much interested in the concept of realism and the notion of inquiry into what the tradition of realism is all about.”




Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Wayne Thiebaud's Mallary Ann (1966)

Ultimately it is the power of art that we recognize in Thiebaud's provocative, often powerful, images.  And it needs to be emphasized - as the Morgan exhibit does - that Thiebaud is a superb landscape artist and an accomplished portraitist, especially his portrait drawings. 

Yet, it is worth noting that Thiebaud signature arrays of pie slices, ice cream cones and other treats have a special "something" about them, a quality that reaches beyond Realism as well as Pop. Like the taste of the petites madeleines in Proust's Memories of Things Past, the images of pie slices or a gumball machine trigger recollections we have seemingly forgotten or hardly perceived to begin with.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Candy Ball Machine (1977)

Let your eyes savor a Thiebaud picture of lemon meringue pie slices and you start thinking about childhood trips to a diner. Look closely at the exquisite depiction of a vintage candy machine and you'll start reaching into your pockets for change to plunk into the coin slot and get a handful bubble gum balls. In both cases, you are not looking at a still life. You are in the realm of memory.

Wayne Thiebaud's vast and varied achievements are brilliantly displayed in the Morgan exhibit. Subtitled "Draftsman," this workman-like term is both accurate for the art works covered in the Morgan exhibit and for Thiebaud as an artist. Largely self-taught, Thiebaud learned art and matured as an artist by drawing. And drawing. And drawing.


For Thibaud, learning is doing and vice versa. In the process, Thiebaud mastered the craft of drawing to a degree that would have gained him positive reviews from some of the old masters he esteems,  Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1917).


Indicative of Thiebaud's work are three works grouped together in the Morgan display. These are variations on a theme, each dating to 1964. 




Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Three Works by Wayne Thiebaud

  Three Jelly Apples, created with graphite, Nine Jelly Apples, watercolor and graphite, and Candied Apples, done with brush and ink, are inspired works in their own right. Viewed together, these multiple images are a consummate demonstration of Thiebaud's mastery of the draftsman's tool kit.
Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1920. Growing-up in California, Thiebaud worked briefly for Disney Studios during a summer break in high school. Thiebaud drew “in-between” scenes for Disney cartoons and had visions of becoming a cartoonist or comic book illustrator. During World War II, he produced cartoons for U.S. armed services magazines, followed by commercial work for Universal Studios and the Rexall Drug Company. 

Thiebaud's early shows the huge influence of graphic art during the 1930's and 40's. This was the great age of comic books, "pulp" magazine illustration and advertisement art. Thiebaud tried his his hand in these genres and his early, examples of which  are on view in the Morgan exhibit, show that he could have achieved success in commercial art. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Railway Cars (1949)

Thiebaud used the GI Bill to earn a master’s degree in art from California State College, Sacramento. This achievement was to set him on the true course of his life's adventure in art.

Significantly, Thiebaud's degree was in in studio art and art education. He began teaching art, first at Sacramento City College, then at University of California, Davis, 1960 to 1991. In keeping with the spirit of American art duing the 1950's, Thiebaud experimented with the techniques of Abstract-Expressionism. He took a sabatical in 1956 and journeyed east to New York City.


While in NYC, Thiebaud got to know the Cedar Cafe crowd and talked painting technique with Willem de Kooning, among others. But he started drawing objects in the crowded windows of New York stores rather than "urban abstract landscapes." Before long Thiebaud's memory served up bounteous images of pies, cakes, donuts and sandwiches, which had been served in the diners where he had worked when young. Thiebaud's signature style had emerged.


Thiebaud's "eats" are what we call today "comfort food." There is a reassuring aspect to pie wedges and hot dogs. Familiarity does not breed contempt.


These images can be a bit alarming, however, especially when you see a lot of them in an exhibition like the Morgan's.  It is easy to see how critics and art patrons confused Thiebaud's pies with Andy Warhol's oeuvre. The mechanization of food stuffs, whether pastries in a diner display case or tomato soup cans on a supermarket shelf, can lead to a "glut" - of food and of images of food.




Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Shelf of Pies (1960)

When the East Coast intelligentsia first studied Thiebaud's art, they projected social criticism into his drawings and paintings. By doing so, they created an agenda for his art which Thiebaud did not espouse. Thiebaud depicted America as it is, without apologies or complaint. In a 2017 interview the British art writer, Martin Gayford, Thiebaud noted:

 After all, I am an American. I’ve driven across the country, and you see the same thing in every restaurant from Sacramento to New York. The same meringue pies. So it began to make a lot of sense to paint them – and it was very intriguing.


Thiebaud happens to enjoy eating lemon meringue pie, as well as drawing the tart, gooey dessert. Indeed, enjoyment is an integral component of his work. Thiebaud does not "celebrate" American abundance or life-style in the way that Soviet "social realism" lamely - and unsuccessfully - tried to do under Stalin. But he does present the good things of everyday life  in the U.S.A., just as painters in ancient Egypt filled the frescoes of tombs with images of foodstuffs for the afterlife as they conceived it.


Thiebaud's flirtation with "Ab-Ex" before settling on his signature Realism mirrors the struggle of American artists down through history. From John Singleton Copley onward, American artists confronted the choice of European and European-inspired art or subjects and motifs from the good-old U.S.A. The villas of Tuscany or the Hudson Valley. Cubism or the Ash Can School.

Wayne Thiebaud chose America. But he did not focus his vision away from the future or from Modernism.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Wayne Thiebaud's Pastel Scatter (1972)


Thiebaud's Pastel Scatter is a still life very much in the tradition of John Frederick Peto. The pastel pieces tromp l'oeil just as Peto's candle sticks, flintlock pistols and crinkled letters did. You know these are just pictures but you want to pick theme up just the same. Moreover, Thiebaud treats these simple shapes with such astonishing facility of light and color that they have an effect on the mind not unlike a Rothko mural.

The same is true of Thiebaud's landscapes. He has acknowledged the influence of early American folk paintings and the work of Richard Diebenkorn. Yet, the 1972 pastel Rock Ridge or the drawing in charcoal from around 1980, River Sides are pure Wayne Thiebaud.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Rock Ridge (1972)


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's River Sides (1980)

Both Rock Ridge and River Sides are realist works, yet are not the result of on-the-spot observation. They were (in Thiebaud's own words), "mostly just invented with perspective structures played around with to try and bring it into some sort of cohesive character."

In short, what you see on the gallery walls at the Morgan is Thiebaud's vision of America. Drawn from the mind's eye of this great American artist, from his life experience and his devotion to art, these are images of America's enduring appeal, of wide-open spaces and the "more abundant life."  


***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Shelf of Pies (Detail), 1960. Brush and ink, watercolor, and charcoal. 19 x 25 inches (48.3 x 63.5 cm) Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Mallary Ann (Detail), 1966. Graphite. 17 x 14 inches (43.2 x 35.6 cm) Allen Stone Collection © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Candy Ball Machine, 1977. Gouache and pastel. 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inches (60.3 x 45.1 cm.) Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Three Jelly Apples, 1964. Graphite. 12 x 13 1/2 inches (30.5 x 34.3 cm.) Private Collection © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Nine Jelly Apples, 1964. Watercolor and graphite. 12 x 12 inches (30.5 x 30.5 cm.) Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B.A. 1932. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Candied Apples,1964. Brush and ink, 7 x 11 7/16 inches (17.8 x 29.1 cm) Allan Stone Collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Railway Cars,1949. Watercolor, wash and ink on paper. Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Shelf of Pies,1960. Brush and ink, watercolor, and charcoal. 19 x 25 inches (48.3 x 63.5 cm) Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Pastel Scatter,1972. Pastel on paper. 16 x 20 1/8 inches (40.6 x 51.1 cm) Thiebaud Family Collection © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Rock Ridge,1972. Pastel on illustration board.  Private Collection. 33 x 20 inches (83.8 x 50.8 cm) © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's River Sides,1980. Charcoal. 22 3/4 x 29 inches (57.8.3 x 73.7 cm) © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.