WAYNE THIEBAUD (b. 1920) Two Hamburgers, 2000

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Lot 20
(b. 1920)
Two Hamburgers, 2000

Sold for US$ 845,000 inc. premium
Two Hamburgers, 2000

signed 'Thiebaud ♡' (upper center)
oil on panel

8 x 12 7/8in.
20.3 x 32.7cm


  • Provenance
    Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco.
    Acquired from the above by the previous owner.
    By descent from the above to the present owner.

    Highly reminiscent of classically structured brushwork, Wayne Thiebaud's approach to painting is both formal in practice and inherently revolutionary in outcome. A true American painter in every sense, Thiebaud's work pays quiet homage to the seduction of excess through nostalgic imagery and exaggerated pigment, exemplifying national pride in his depiction of everyday American life. Though modest in scale, Two Hamburgers, 2000, is a work for which a photographic reproduction does little justice. An intimate meditation on color, form and artistry that delicately marries Realism and Expressionism, Two Hamburgers is a penetratingly genuine look at the human experience, for which food is a continual and undeniable staple.

    Perhaps most widely revered for his rendition of the commonplace into the extraordinary, Thiebaud's consistency with which he approaches the painterly practice has cemented him as an anchor of American Contemporary art. Emphasizing the power of nostalgia on the American psyche through lusciously applied paint and familiar subject matter that evokes visions of comfort and childhood, he dismantles the barrier between reality and illusion. Thiebaud presents objects commonly taken for granted as treasures he has unearthed from childhood memory, thus encouraging the viewer to engage in a thoughtful interaction with visual consciousness and presentation.

    Born to Mormon parents in Arizona in 1920, Thiebaud was deeply engrained in and attuned to the ritualistic ways of American life from the start. He was raised in southern and central California, a source of inspiration to which he credits much of his early work. After an apprenticeship with the Walt Disney Studios as a teenager and later jobs in advertising and design, Thiebaud began to paint scenes that, as he aptly describes, "...came out of my life, particularly the American world in which I was privileged to be. It just seemed to be the most genuine thing which I had done."1 Throughout his body of work, Thiebaud's attention to detail has been sophisticated and consistent, his portrayal of ordinary objects highlighting the elemental beauty he truly saw in the world. Thiebaud himself best expresses this sentiment, noting, "It was somehow important to me to be honest in what we do, and to love what it is we paint. These were lessons given to me by other artists, obviously. To do what you love, or are interested in, or have some regard for. And it seems to me that it's easy to overlook what we spend our majority of time doing, and that's an intimate association with everyday things: putting on our shoes, tying our ties, eating our breakfast, cooking our meals, washing our dishes. Somehow that ongoing human activity seems to me very much worth doing."2 His focus on experience and truth is felt deeply by anyone privileged enough to stand before his work - his beach scenes encompassing and preserving the blissful idyll of his native California, his cityscapes possessing ebullient colors and wildly careening roads teetering on the edge of chaotic. In the late 1950s, he started to paint scenes that portrayed traditional notions of American comfort food with distinct enthusiasm as if he were remembering them from a fond childhood memory. The cakes, candies and sandwiches for which he is best known would prove to be a recurring theme throughout his lengthy career, demonstrating the artist's intense connection to his thematic choice. His storied experimentation with the same subject matter lends him a unique consistency that allows for a deeper exploration into the transformative power of paint as a medium. Though Thiebaud takes a remarkable interest in American consumer culture with his food imagery, particularly, the hamburger, it is the honest appreciation with which he conceptualizes the idea of this fast food item that sets him apart from the rest.

    Executed just over the cusp of the millennia, Two Hamburgers evokes a sense of genuine nostalgia, of longing for an era of simplicity long forgotten in the craze of technology and the abundance of digital production in America. Two Hamburgers, though painted in a year that would come to reflect a highly volatile political landscape, international tension, and the dot com boom, instantly transports the viewer back to a time when the consumption of fast food was a novelty and when the American dinner table was celebrated. The hamburger itself is perhaps one of the most recognizable symbols of American culture, though its historic importance is often downplayed, even made repugnant over time. Through Thiebaud's eyes, the viewer perceives the hamburger with renewed enjoyment for the food that is now synonymous with the American identity. Two Hamburgers teases the olfactory senses in a veritable display of emotion and energy, emanating from the visual vernacular of Thiebaud's own boyhood memories. The theme of readily accessible, handheld foods is one of personal and poetic importance to the artist, who had a certain fondness for painting things that were "available in almost every place in America."3

    Thiebaud is wholly dedicated to the preservation of object and mise en scène; candy-colored hues accentuating the sensuality of simply configured items, expressive brushstrokes and thickly applied impasto giving three-dimensional life to planar compositions. American art scholar John Wilmerding argues that although Thiebaud shared a common appropriation of food imagery into artwork with champions of Pop such as Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Thiebaud's work is slightly more pure in composition and intention, stating, "he never embraced the mechanical, self-effacing touch, or fascination with the language and processes of advertising."4 Many of Thiebaud's contemporaries, entranced by the postwar insurgence of production and commodification of items that represented Americana at its best, ironically and satirically interpreted the American preoccupation with food and the advertising that surrounded it. In an appropriation of persuasive advertising imagery true to form, Warhol distorted the distinction between artistic hand and mechanized printing in his Hamburger, 1985-86, the text below a radiant burger subversive, almost mocking in tone. Oldenburg's Two Cheeseburgers with Everything (Dual Hamburgers), 1962, one of the earliest examples of the hamburger as an archetype of postwar America, is painted in a garish color, its irregular forms mimicking the heightened excess of production, eschewing the classical restraint and sentimentalism that Thiebaud favored. Thiebaud's depiction of food items has often been critically considered alongside Edward Hopper's interpretations of the everyday American lifestyle, a natural comparison drawn between the supreme stillness of being in the artists' works. Yet where Hopper's vignettes are markedly more somber, Thiebaud's celebrate the very existence of the prosaic. In Hopper's Nighthawks, the last lingering patrons in the diner are tersely frozen, a melancholy air hovering above. Where Hopper seems to ruminate on the imperfections of human life, Thiebaud exudes reverence for the ordinary, the leisurely, and the often overlooked. When considering the essential form and composition of Two Hamburgers, the viewer likely conjures images of Ralph Goings' hyper-realistic diner scenes or John Baeder's organic, unrefined depiction of the American roadside. Despite evoking similar memories of the national identity that was most prominent in the mid-century, no other artist truly captures the spirit and effervescence of life at its purest and most pleasurable form than Thiebaud does.

    Two Hamburgers possesses a serene optimism that restores faith in the American lifestyle, emblematic of Thiebaud's enduring legacy in the face of dramatically changing political and cultural landscapes. His salient brushwork and dramatic use of color create a vibrancy that is palpable to the viewer, producing art we can consume with our eyes instead of our stomachs. Thiebaud alone could breathe life into static objects, yet arguably to the artist these were items that already possessed an inherent spirit waiting to be released. He states, "Objects are for me like... characters in a play."5 Two Hamburgers emerges as the manifestation of Thiebaud's artistic intention, possessing a seduction rivaling Mel Ramos' playful pinups. On the whole, Thiebaud's work is as visually stimulating as Expressionism and as culturally poignant as Pop, "But perhaps the real issue that confounds critics is Thiebaud's independence of style and vision. He is possibly the only, and certainly the foremost, artist in recent modern art to fuse seamlessly essential aspects of the two major artistic developments over the last half-century: the expressive brushwork of Abstract Expressionism and the commercial realism of Pop art. What some see as a weakness is arguably a unique strength – his art eludes easy placement in standard art categories."6

    When examined as a fragment of Thiebaud's body of work, Two Hamburgers strikes the same rhythmic repetition as his ceaseless rows of sweets, yet the isolation of the imagery against a stark white background emphasizes the picture plane, subtly underscoring the thematic importance of the object in question. Thiebaud's decision to return to the very subject matter he exquisitely pioneered in the early 1960s is a masterful achievement, establishing a connection between his early works and his mature works and bringing his oeuvre full circle. Two Hamburgers is untouched and pure, yet to realize its true potential, the epitome of the authentic American dream. Wilmerding argues that Thiebaud's uniquely honed ability to marry the deeply contemplative with the bright and fanciful is precisely what makes his food paintings so important within the canon of postwar American art. He places particular emphasis on the presentation of works such as Two Hamburgers, stating, "That most of his foods seem full of life and optimism is doubtless part of their appeal. He gives us meals that have been prepared but not yet eaten."7

    A particular interaction between color and light transpires in Two Hamburgers: light is not only absorbed and reflected by the lustrous, textured pigments, but it also emanates from within the objects themselves, casting dramatic shadows off the dextral edges. The copious application and density of the paint lend the work a palpable volume, allowing external light to seep into the ridges of paint on canvas like layers in a cake or a hamburger. The warm tonalities of each bun are offset by the richly painted alabaster background, the shadows themselves encompassing a kaleidoscopic spectrum of hues oozing with blue, red, yellow, and green undertones. That Thiebaud chooses to give the viewer just one angle of observance, one configuration of many potential vantage points, demonstrates his mastery of aesthetic concepts of depth, form, and halation, the latter of which being his signature technique. When asked about the strong role that light plays in determining form in his works, Thiebaud remarks, "the light is created by way of creating energy, by the juxtaposition of colors and the interaction of those colors to create light quite different from the modulation of volumetric rendering."8 He further states, "It's not what we refer to as natural light, but it's a kind of eternal light, or symbolic light, or light that is sustained by the energy of the interaction of color."9

    Expertly rendered in a harmoniously pleasing array of color and familiarity, Two Hamburgers emerges as a relic of the past, recontextualized in the changing scope of American history. That Thiebaud arouses our appetite and craving for consistency in times of uncertainty is no small feat: Two Hamburgers, though unassuming in size, draws our attention with an unequivocal directness and simplicity unparalleled by any other American artist. Thiebaud himself best articulates the very essence of his work that renders it timeless, suggesting, "But when you think about it, painting itself is a kind of miracle, because what you're doing is reducing a three-dimensional world of living, active organized chaos into this little, flat, unmoving, quiet, flat thing, which has to, in some ways, be able to speak to you."10 Buoyant and natural, Two Hamburgers makes no pretentions of a higher meaning, no allusions to a lofty goal. Two hamburgers are softly nestled into the unblemished background, the epitome of comfort food waiting to be consumed. One with pickle and one without, the hamburgers are served side by side, suspended on the horizontal plane in a fashion reminiscent of inherent longing. That these two forms are the only two the viewer must contend with in the present work emphasizes their significance among Thiebaud's endless array of desserts, their glistening texture a delectable rarity in the Contemporary Art canon.

    Wayne Thiebaud effortlessly captures fleeting slices of American life, suspending them forever in a glass case as the bakery shop owner does his cakes, with a distinct emphasis on the preservation of both object and process. To experience the sensuous magic of Thiebaud's artistry, to view firsthand the masterful and dynamic clarity with which he paints, the viewer must first understand Thiebaud's inherently palpable love for what he does. In Two Hamburgers, Thiebaud's true mastery of and passion for the artistic practice is exemplified: the painterly technique of his hand instantly recognizable, the breadth of his works limitless.

    1. S.A. Nash, "Unbalancing Acts: Thiebaud Reconsidered" in Wayne Thiebaud, A Paintings Retrospective, New York, 2000, p. 18.
    2. W. Thiebaud, quoted in "Wayne Thiebaud Interview: Painter and Teacher, Celebrating the Joy of Living," Academy of Achievement, Sacramento, 2011, http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/thi0int-1.
    3. W. Thiebaud, in Oral history interview with Wayne Thiebaud, New York, 2001, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
    4. J. Wilmerding, "Wayne Thiebaud: 'The Emperor of Ice Cream,'" in Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., New York, Acquavella Gallery, 2012, p. 12.
    5. W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. G. Rubin, Delicious: The Life and Art of Wayne Thiebaud, San Francisco, 2007, p. 21.
    6. J. Wilmerding, p. 11.
    7. Ibid, p. 14.
    8. W. Thiebaud, quoted in "Object Lessons", in ARTnews, New York, 2011, http://www.artnews.com/2011/11/08/object-lessons/.
    9. Ibid..
    10. W. Thiebaud, "Wayne Thiebaud Interview: Painter and Teacher, Celebrating the Joy of Living."
WAYNE THIEBAUD (b. 1920) Two Hamburgers, 2000
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