Wayne Thiebaud. The Last Interview
The passing of celebrated California painter Wayne Thiebaud was confirmed by his gallery Aqcuavella on Sunday. “Even at 101 years old, he still spent most days in the studio, driven by, as he described with his characteristic humility, ‘this almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint’,” the statement said.
Thiebaud’s now legendary practice expanded the Pop Art movement, being particularly known for his unique focus on paintings of everyday subject matter – cakes, pies, gumball machines, and highways – inflected with pastel hues and a sense of Americana. These works were staples at major auction house sales; Four Pinball Machines (1920) sold at Christie’s for a staggering $19,1 million in July 2020 and Sotheby’s holds the record for his cakes when Encased Cakes netted $8,46 million in 2019.
Though highly celebrated for his mastery over the painted medium, this last interview reveals the lesser-known influences of cartooning on both his oeuvre and that of peers such as Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston. Particularly loved by his cohort was Krazy Kat—the mid-20th century icon created by George Herriman—in 1990 Thiebaud collaborated with choreographer Brenda Way on a ballet based on the strip in San Francisco.
Krazy Kat reappeared as the titular character of Thiebaud’s former student Vonn Cummings Sumner’s solo show Krazy Times at Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C. this past November. “I have been so incredibly fortunate to have Wayne as a kind of confidant, a co-conspirator,” says the painter, for whom studio visits with Thiebaud continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. On the occasion of Sumner’s exhibition, he and Thiebaud conducted an interview. Emphasizing the significance of artistic exchange across time, space, and generations and reflective of their decades-long friendship, this conversation dives deep into the trajectories of both artists’ practices, highlighting Thiebaud’s illustrious career and the influence of his mentorship on Sumner, his former student, and their shared interest in Krazy Kat.
Wayne Thiebaud: How did we get into this Krazy business in the first place?
Vonn Cummings Sumner: Well, you introduced Krazy Kat to me, when I was in your Theory & Criticism class. But, I wondered if you remember where and when you first saw Krazy Kat?
WT: When I was in the Army Air Force doing a little strip of my own, about a nondescript, dogface, Army Corporal, who was getting into all kinds of trouble a fellow by the name of Bob Crosby introduced me to the cartoonist George Herriman, the creator of the Krazy Kat strip. Bob tthought my strip was repetitive, full of cliches, and that I should shape up and become acquainted with Krazy Kat. To me it looked like a bunch of nonsense. I had just been to war and was, I guess, 20, 21 years old it was 1942 or 3.
VS: When I was a child, my introduction to any kind of pictures, really, were through children’s book illustrations and then comic books.
WT: For most American painters, that was their experience. They all talked about it, even, of course, Philip Guston. A lot of the people around the New York group were early cartoonists, and fed on American cartoonists and illustrations.
VS: Do you think it was a particularly American phenomenon to grow up looking at those things?
WT: I’ve heard that Picasso and some of the Surrealists were interested in Krazy Kat, but I have no documents to back this claim. They were certainly following Tin Tin, the Belgian cartoon. Regardless of which character we are talking about, the idea of humanity is central. How we can get them somehow to touch on that aspect? Not so much comic, and pratfalls, and actions, but just the aspect of when they are most human. For instance, I never found Nancy [a comic strip character that the artist Joe Brainard used in his artwork] very humane. But humanity runs all the way through Krazy Kat: his vulnerability and his wiseness in the face of naiveté. Such loving characteristics. So, you’ve done some, I think, quite remarkable paintings bringing him into little vignettes, and, mostly him with—and I haven’t seen all of them—but usually he’s somewhat alone, with some action, or with an elephant, or with something. I think they’re very, very well done, and very humane.
VS: When I showed you those first two little Krazy Kat paintings that I did, you spoke about the idea of “painting for the millions.” You quoted someone saying you shouldn’t pick up a pen to start writing without considering the millions, or the masses – the audience.
WT: I think that was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German.
VS: Why is does Krazy Kat lend itself to such popularity?
WT: Well, because it’s hard to understand Krazy Kat. What is going on? What is his/her gender? Why is the Southwest such a powerful environment for him? The wide open spaces? The wonderful, unpredictable-ness of the landscape, in terms of particularly American history. So why is that, rather than a more ‘normal’ environment, for Krazy Kat? I think it’s because of the unending possibilities that something like that open space can achieve.
VS: I don’t know if you remember this, Wayne, but you once sent me a postcard, or a little reproduction card from a Morandi show that Paul [Thiebaud] did in San Francisco. You put a Krazy Kat cartoon folded up inside of it and then you made a little note on the envelope, you said: “Krazy Kat and Morandi, an ideal dialectic!” I thought it was exciting as an idea. What if you set up those two as a dialectic, what comes out of that space in between them?
To point it in another direction: I wonder what it is about cartoon characters that allows people to identify with them? In your teaching, you emphasize the role of empathy, in both making paintings and also in looking at them, perceiving them. How do you see the role of empathy relating specifically to Krazy Kat, or why do you think we feel so attached to that little character?
WT: Well at center, it seems to me, is vulnerability. Not ‘sob story’ vulnerability, not too obvious, because he is determined, usually, never to be vulnerable. He resists vulnerability, it seems to me, which is quite a curious characteristic. You hit him on the head with a brick—could not care less! It is as much a ‘love-tap’ as a pain in the head!
VS: Part of what has been the challenge and the goal of doing these Krazy Kat paintings, for me, is to fully leave all of those photographic reference kind of crutches behind, and just work from drawings or memory or invention.
WT: I think that is where the gold lies.
VS: Why? What does memory painting allow for?
WT: It is not fixed. If you think about what you are getting from your memory, and as you begin to use it, all kinds of other things come into it, suddenly; mistakes, aberrations; ‘Gee, I didn’t know that little bump was so effective.’ You start out with one sense, one memory, and it becomes almost a kaleidoscope. There are suddenly all these variants of that one memory. That is the way I think of memory. And, I do not think it depends on just getting something fixed, but almost the opposite. Getting something which allows you to expand, to contract, to change, to color, to enlarge, all of the possibilities of that instance.
VS: So that you can discover something that you did not set out to know, or so that you can surprise yourself?
WT: Exactly. You can know, generally, in advance; but you cannot know, or deal with the surprises, the accidents that inform the work differently than you thought. Some of that can come into Krazy Kat. I do not think he has to be grand and clear. You are doing that, I think, with some effect.
VS: I am interested in the idea of this singular character or figure that is both something that we know, something that we can agree on while being built into the world that Herriman was creating that is always changing. This process of becoming or unbecoming and unraveling lends itself well to uncertainty and open-endedness.
VS: Returning to incorporating humanity in painting. Ironically, it is through painting this strange cat that is not a cat, actually somehow you are trying to get at our own human vulnerability and hopes and dreams and whimsies and daydreams and nostalgia. All of the things that this amazing character can embody, right?
WT: It is not a simple problem; it is fascinating, challenging, and wonderful to see what happens. So, it is a treat to think of just ‘what is this painting going to look like?’ And, I am trying to make it look as interesting as possible. So that form– the formal order– is sustained, celebrated, and used ruthlessly, to make those paintings special, whatever the direction, whatever the intent. That is more likely than anything to get them into the canon, and the celebration.
VS: I have decided that I like the question that kind of lurks next to the Krazy Kat paintings– can you even paint this? Or is it really ridiculous and not even worthwhile at all!
WT: [Laughter] That is the confrontation. That is exactly the way I felt trying to paint those damn pies. I could not believe anyone would be interested, on the other hand, I was just like, wow this is fun.
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to email@example.com.