New article on Wayne Thiebaud’s Clown series

Wayne Thiebaud is about to reveal his most recent body of work: a selection of paintings and drawings from the new clown series will be on view starting December 8th at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco. In conjunction with the exhibition, The New Criterion just published a new article I wrote on the evolution of the series. It appears in print in December issue (special art issue), and online. I post the full text of the article below for those who are not subscribers.

The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4

Wayne Thiebaud,  Clown and Dog, n.d., Black brush ink on paper, ARS (Artists Rights Society).


Art December 2019
There ought to be clowns

by Julia Friedman
On a new series of works by the American artist Wayne Thiebaud.

The American artist Wayne Thiebaud is best known for the paintings of starkly lit confections he has been making since the early 1960s, so his daring recent work may come as a surprise. I first became aware of the new circus series during a visit to his Sacramento studio in March 2017. Among two dozen or so paintings lining opposing walls—mostly the signature landscapes and still lifes—were several small canvases of clowns. I did not take any photos, but from what I recall these were: a lonesome white clown standing against white background; a tiger pinning down a puppet-like prone clown; bust portraits of a clown and a fortune teller; and a painting of a clown behind an American flag–draped podium, his upraised arms forming a “V,” with a billboard-sized portrait inscribed “vote!” in the background. We did not talk about the clown paintings then, and Thiebaud only briefly mentioned that he was “painting clowns these days.” On my two subsequent visits in the spring and summer of 2018, the number of clown pieces grew in geometric progression—the paintings were now supplemented by drawings —so our conversations began to reflect the increasing importance of what was clearly a new body of work.

Over the years, many of Thiebaud’s interviewers have remarked on what a thoughtful and generous interlocutor he is. My experience confirms that opinion. He patiently answered a multitude of questions about the series’s visual and literary sources, which range from an array of clown representations by European and American artists, through George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip and Henry Miller’s existentialist short story “The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder,” to Marcel Carné’s 1945 movie classic Les énfants du paradis. We had some interesting, if depressing, exchanges on how clowning has been absorbed into politics and academia. I learned that Thiebaud’s interest in clowns derives from his fascination with a traveling circus he first encountered in Long Beach, California, during the Great Depression. Born in Arizona in 1920, Thiebaud spent most of his childhood in Long Beach, which was on the travel route of the Ringling Brothers Circus. From the age of twelve, he and his pals would go to meet the arriving circus train in hopes of getting hired to do some manual work for the clowns and strongmen. In exchange, they were given free tickets to the circus and its sideshows.

Thiebaud describes his memories of the circus as “powerful,” and the circus itself as “a magic world,” but his recollections are unmistakably ambivalent— the circus reflected “contrasts and extremes,” including “ominous clowns as very nasty fellows.” For all its “bright pathos” and the anticipation of its arrival, the circus evoked in the future artist a palpable vacillation between joy and fear. And so Thiebaud’s circus paintings can be seen as a subtle interpretation of a world that is, in the painter’s words, simultaneously “exciting and frightening.”

Those words are perhaps equally apt for the act of art-making. On another visit, I noticed among the works in the clown series an older painting that showed a middle-aged man, perhaps an artist, presenting a painting that looked like one of Thiebaud’s own cityscapes to a nerdy-looking woman, perhaps an art historian or a curator. The artist’s head was topped with a cutout dunce’s hat made of pink construction paper and loosely attached to the canvas with a piece of clear tape. It seemed to hint at parallels between artists and clowns, to evoke the notion of artists as entertainers. I asked Thiebaud about it, and he responded that the “modification” represented the artist feeling like a buffoon when showing his wares to studio visitors. Yet the painting had disappeared from the line-up by my next visit six weeks later— Thiebaud had only been jesting.

Humor has been an integral part of Thiebaud’s work for over eighty years. While still a teenager, he worked as an animator at Walt Disney Studios before embarking on the study of commercial art. During World War II he continued his cartooning as part of the First Air Force Motion Picture Unit before transitioning into commercial advertising in the post-war years. In addition to a trove of published cartoon strips from his years in the Air Force, the Thiebaud Foundation holds an entire archive of cartoons drawn for his wife, Betty Jean, and a dozen or so exceedingly funny cartoons mocking the art world (a worthy competition to Ad Reinhardt’s take-downs), as well as a collection of entries he has submitted to The New Yorker cartoon captions competition.

Thiebaud’s early career as a cartoonist and his lifelong dedication to the genre link the clown series to the comic art of George Herriman, whose logic- defying daily comic strip Krazy Kat partly inspired the painter’s illusory clown acts. Thiebaud has acknowledged Herriman’s influence in conversations and interviews; he also painted sets for the 1990 San Francisco Ballet production of Krazy Kat. As those who have heard him speak are well aware, wit is a seminal component of Thiebaud’s life and work. His responses in Q & A portions of lectures are invariably punctuated with jokes, often self- deprecating and always spot-on. Thiebaud likes to make people smile. When I asked him if he identified with clowns, he agreed that he did, musing, “if I had another profession. . . . You want to be liked.”

Thiebaud is widely liked. He holds the rare distinction of being both a great painter and a popular one. Art historians and critics acknowledge his contributions to the canon, highlighting visual dialogues with Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, and Giorgio Morandi. Among his painter colleagues he is similarly revered; the timeworn phrase “artist’s artist” comes to mind. And general audiences have come to love his work through the subjects he made iconic: the cakes, the streetscapes, the mountains. Though he depicts vernacular, mundane, and even clichéd subjects, Thiebaud achieves the elusive end of creating a new painted world. Critics and public alike recognize this achievement.

But, in sharp contrast to his audience and even his critics, Thiebaud is, as he once put it, “not a big fan of [his] work.” The recurrent motif of our conversations as the series continued to grow and evolve was the challenge of representing clowns who are “at once humans and phantoms.” Depicting these figures has created for the artist a specific set of problems. Unlike human figures, whom Thiebaud, with rare exceptions, painted from live models, his clowns are spun from memory, just like the confections and the mountains that made him famous. Yet clowns are not inanimate objects—they’re human actors playing various human types. In Thiebaud’s view, his more successful paintings avoid what he calls “contextual impropriety”: when clowns engage in actions beyond the expected circus acts, or when their behavior in the ring deviates from the norm.

To avoid such impropriety, several paintings have been removed from the series or completely reworked, among them the clown behind the flag-clad podium that I saw during my initial encounter. They are replaced with less problematic paintings: on my most recent visit in September, a new one showed a clown with a little white dog in his arms, perhaps a memory of Lou Jacobs and his dog Knucklehead—a Chihuahua mix with latte-colored spots around his eyes, just as in the painting. Thiebaud actually met Jacobs decades after watching him perform at the Ringling Brothers Circus, and the two had lunch.

The clown series is scheduled to make its gallery debut this month, and several of the paintings will be included in Thiebaud’s multi-venue centennial show, due to open at the Sacramento Crocker Art Museum in October 2020, one month before the painter turns 100. As it currently stands, the series comprises approximately two dozen paintings and half a dozen drawings. Patient zero is dated 2015. It is a small square painting of a lone white clown against a white background. He appears to teeter on the front edge of a central dark circle forming a kind of inverted spotlight. The ambiguous, elliptical shape resembles a gaping chasm, into which the clown may fall, presumably to the amusement of the audience. This sort of visual and narrative ambiguity permeates the series on every level. The painting occupies a space halfway between a clown portrait and a clown act: the clown simply stands there, signifying nothing beyond himself.

This single, standing clown motif is repeated in three other small paintings. One of them, Clown & Shadow (2019), shows a little pot-bellied figure, roughly one-sixth the size of the square he inhabits. At first glance, the clown leans to the left of the central axis—an effect created by the improbable purple shadow that starts at his feet and continues on the foreshortened diagonal toward the right margin of the canvas. But the clown’s red nose is actually in the center of the painting. The mouth is similarly ambiguous: obscured on his face, the clown’s smile is projected into the composition under the yellow and orange rim of the stage—an illusion supported by a row of vertical brush marks resembling a row of teeth. The idea that things are not what they seem recurs as the clown’s costume and body blend into one: his red nose continues along an arc of red buttons going up his prosthetic (or real?) belly; his rainbow makeup blends into his suit. The artifice of the clown’s made-up face and lobster-like red hands emphasizes the resemblance of the costume to a bodysuit so that the clown, although man- shaped, comes across as more figurine than figure.

Another ambiguous work from 2018 shows two clowns: an older bearded and mustachioed clown wearing a skull cap and polka dot coat, his hand resting on the shoulder of a younger clown in a striped sweater and bow tie. Its composition closely resembles a 1975 graphite drawing of two figures, in imitation of Daumier. Thiebaud refers to this double portrait as a drawing, not a painting, even though its medium is a mix of graphite and oil, its support is stretched canvas, and it is framed as a painting. This is important because what is usually hidden in a painting—the alterations caused by overpainting—remains in plain view, since the charcoal, or graphite, is not completely erased. In this double portrait, changes to the tilt of the younger clown’s head are still visible, as is the axis line of his face. It is a useful reminder that Thiebaud’s method incorporates continuous reworking. Between my studio visits, he often changed the backgrounds of paintings, adding or subtracting various elements, elaborating on detail or composition. Thiebaud tends to work on several canvases simultaneously, adding new ones to the mix before earlier paintings are finished.

The clown series forms a unique oeuvre. It is informed by a lifetime of painting, looking at art, reading about art, teaching studio classes, and lecturing. It revisits childhood memories with the hindsight of adulthood wisdom, as well as a clear-headed understanding of our current age, with its absurdist politics and performative, digitally overshared lives. And while his paintings are firmly grounded in art history, Thiebaud’s clowns are much more than a vehicle for the exploration of formal qualities. There is too much sentiment, too much heart in his paintings for the viewer to dismiss the clowns as mere motif. In one of our conversations, when I pressed the question of formalism, Thiebaud recalled how his friend and colleague the British philosopher and critic Richard Wollheim once corrected the painter’s assertion that he was a formalist. Wollheim, who admired precision and disliked clichés, pointed out that Thiebaud’s obvious emotional investment in his subject matter made his claims to formalism ring hollow. “And he was right,” Thiebaud concluded. He told me this story over breakfast at Pancake Circus—a circus-themed diner filled with clown art and memorabilia. It has been a fixture in Sacramento since 1961, the year Thiebaud painted his first pies.

Julia Friedman, an independent art historian, critic, and curator, has been a regular contributor to Artforum.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4 , on page 48 Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion