Sweet renderings

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At The Morgan, Wayne Thiebaud’s delicate delights


  • "Nine Jelly Apples," 1964, watercolor and graphite. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B.A. 1932. Photo: Tony De Camillo. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

  • "New York City Winter," 1956, brush and ink and watercolor. From the artist’s studio. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

  • "Candy Sticks," 1964, watercolor and graphite. Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Susan Morse Hilles. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

  • "Self Portrait," ca. 1970, graphite. From the artist’s studio. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

  • "Candy Ball Machine," 1977, gouache and pastel. Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

  • "Three Roads," 1983, charcoal. Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

  • "Dog," 1967, graphite. Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

Visitors to the “Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman” exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum will likely want to hit up the museum’s café for a bite afterwards. The show looks good enough to eat. The native Californian is known for his delectable oil paintings of pies, cakes and candies, but this is the first to show his journey and his mastery of the creative process with #2 pencils, pen and ink, watercolors and pastels.

Outside the exhibit rooms, there’s a self-portrait, in pencil, of a stocky Thiebaud, one who appears to know his way around a pastry case. The drawing overlooks the sketches he made in the 90s for the gastronomic classic “The Physiology of Taste” by Brillat-Savarin, who once said, “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” The works range from a few dashed off scribbles that evoke the ruffled feathers of a strutting bird to a fully realized sketch of a farmer holding his kill — all dynamically rendered.

Thiebaud wanted to be a cartoonist, but that early effort gets scant wall space. The exhibit picks up with “New York City Winter,” from 1956, a breezy, impressionistic black-and-white watercolor rendering of a typical mid-century neighborhood corner grocery: salamis overhead, piles of bananas and melons, a display case with sandwiches and a black cat headed for the storeroom. It’s the overture to his later works, when he focused on a carefully selected and arranged display (he was once a window dresser) of burgers (which he loved) pies, cakes and candies.

He came to New York to be a painter, but returned to California when his friend and fellow painter Willem de Kooning told him his first attempts looked like he was trying to make “art.” Thiebaud recalled that de Kooning suggested he paint “what he knew something about and was passionate about.” Back home, Thiebaud sat before a blank canvas and, following Cezanne’s advice about what Thiebaud has called “basic units,” painted a few circles. On an impulse, he added a few triangles. He recalled thinking “I’ve seen rows of pies that look like this.” He had found his subject, maybe even his muse.

Even in his studies and experiments with no color, just shadow, such as “Shelf of Pies,” from 1960, he’s the Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin of pastry. All his works are serene. There’s no irony, no snide subtext about calories, junk food or consumerism. Even in these preparatory works, the cakes and pies are on literal pedestals, glistening with frosting. This is a show you can take children to. The towhead carried by his dad nearby couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old, and was happily pointing out his favorites among the brightly colored works.

His favorite, and that of many others, are the depictions of candy apples. “Nine Jelly Apples,” from 1964, is a richly colored watercolor whose subjects look freshly dipped, juicy and glossy. Although all his watercolors fairly glisten, this work is all bright, sweet stickiness. In “Candied Apples,” the same subject appears in pen and ink, as stark and iconic as a Japanese ink drawing. The last in this series, “Three jelly apples,” also from 1964 , is a sedate pencil work that brings out the brittle quality of the fruit. “Candy Sticks,” from the same year, is all colored swirls, stripes and shiny surfaces in pastel, and as sedate, pure forms in pencil.

For all the sweets on display, though, this compact show packs a bittersweet punch. Thiebaud, now 97, evokes nostalgia for a lost New York: The delicatessen counters, the corner grocery stores, the pastry cases and cake stands that have all but disappeared from a city with a dwindling number of diners. There’s a reason he’s been called (perhaps with a sneer) “the Walt Whitman of the Delicatessen” for his portrayal of scenes once familiar to countless New Yorkers.

Among the most poignant is “Candy Ball Machine,” a gouache and pastel rendering depicted as delicately as a flower dispensing nectar to hummingbirds. The detailing of the gumballs within the clear glass globe are a riot of glossy colors, whirls, stripes, stars and spangles. He called “Candy Ball,” which he painted in 1977, “a kind of icon, with simple beauty, colors and magic, dispensing a luscious, colorful sweet treat.”

Compared to his desserts, the works featuring people don’t satisfy. While technically brilliant, the renderings are impassive and static, with no more depth than the glaze on a candy apple. The landscapes are even stranger, with city streets intersecting each other on hills with ridiculously steep angles or irresolvable loops and curves.

Instead of puzzling over those, head to the café, or a block up Madison Avenue, to the Moonstruck Diner, and have a slice of cake. The Morgan show displays the span of Thiebaud’s skills, but his sweets outshine the rest. Yes, there’s more to him than that, but like the old adage: Life is short. Eat dessert first.

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