Thiebaud Revealed Through the Lens of Friendship



Local resident and art historian Gene Cooper with his portrait by Wayne Thiebaud, part of the museum’s just opened exhibition.
Local resident and art historian Gene Cooper with his portrait by Wayne Thiebaud, part of the museum’s just opened exhibition.

Slices of cake, cupcakes dripping with frosting, ice cream cones and gum ball machines rendered in oil paint rather than flour and sugar might momentarily fool the senses and blur distinctions between a sweet shop and the Laguna Art Museum’s newest exhibit, “Wayne Thiebaud: American Memories.”

Comprised of nearly 60 paintings selected by the artist and organized by the museum’s executive director Malcolm Warner, the exhibition illuminates the breadth of Thiebaud’s skills and interests. The latter spanned landscapes, portraits of people and animals, common household objects and beach scenes recalling his childhood in Long Beach and trips to Laguna Beach.

Visits to Laguna included and still include stops with longtime friend Gene Cooper, an art historian and artist, who curated the museum’s Thiebaud retrospective in 2007.

“By now I know more about Wayne than Wayne,” said Cooper, who based an unfinished Ph.D dissertation on Thiebaud. The manuscript was destroyed along with his home and art collection during the 1993 firestorm and Cooper abandoned the project.

In a recent interview at his Laguna Beach home, Cooper, 75, shed light on Thiebaud, 93, his mentor and the artist whom he considers the “voxi populi” of America.  Warner calls Thiebaud an art world rock star.

“Wayne’s work ethic instilled by his Mormon parents lies at the core of his art. He does not wait for inspiration; he goes into his studio and works,” he said. “He attempts to take the mystery out of art by painting ordinary objects but then succeeds in making them extra-ordinary.”

The exhibition includes a portrait of Cooper intensely studying a canvas. Like several others, the painting bears two dates, 1971/1994 since Thiebaud sometimes finished a painting but would return to it years later, explained Cooper. Works range from 1959-2014 and serve as a visual autobiography of the artist.

Cooper also described Thiebaud as an old-school artist with an abiding respect for art history and beaux-arts traditions, who often paints from memory. “He has a strong academic streak. He copied art of the masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other museums, and drew extensively. He loves the basics.”

Their paths intersected when Cooper, after an academic switch from marine zoology to art history, took a job as an assistant art history professor and gallery director at Cal State Long Beach and needed to put together a show.

“I had always kept a slide of Wayne’s ‘Booth Girl’ and I thought why not a Wayne Thiebaud show?”

Cooper had briefly met the artist earlier when he was a visiting artist at Fullerton College but seriously connected with him in 1971 through Cal State Long Beach founding gallery director and art dealer Connie Glenn. “Our history started at lunch. I had pie,” he reminisced. “Booth Girl” is in the current show.

It turns out that Thiebaud had an ulterior motive for assenting to the show. His parents still lived in Long Beach. He figured that if he had a show close by they could see what it was that he did. Cooper also said that Thiebaud prefers to call himself a painter rather than an artist.

Cooper revealed that Thiebaud was also a cartoonist with aspirations to contribute to the New Yorker magazine. But, while the magazine commissioned five covers, the cartoons went unpublished.

Thiebaud lives and works in Sacramento, home of the Wayne Thiebaud foundation. The building houses his archives, works of art, objects that he has collected and an apartment for visiting scholars. “Stuff that artists collect fascinates me, I’d like to organize a show around that sometime,” said Cooper.

When Cooper retired from teaching in 2003, he too began to paint. “All those years of art history taught me how to be a painter,” he said. And that’s were Thiebaud became a mentor.

“Wayne still has me do a three-minute self-portrait every night,” he said pointing to three pencil-on-paper sketches. Art history is equally pervasive in canvasses with titles such as “Degas and I” or “Manet and I.” Then again he switches gears into abstraction.

The friends speak on the phone several times a week and when together find time for a game of tennis.  “There is never any sadness in Wayne’s art. He wants to bring happiness to people,” said Cooper.


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