by Kriston Capps
Wayne Thibaud, Cakes, 1963
The debate over school lunch has exposed a rift between Alice Waters and her supporters and those who see this high-ground camp as unpractical and pretentious. The word “aesthete” has been tossed around; that is always a sign that the fighting has reached its ugliest. But Waters didn’t invest the aesthetic appreciation for food. It’s impossible not to appreciate food aesthetically! Food might be the most common and binding aesthetic experience, activating multiple senses simultaneously and drawn from tradition and environment—except when it conspicuously lacks context in either. But there is an aesthetic to mass food to be appreciated, too.
This feature aims to surface the strong association between food and art. (The inspired title was generously donated to me by The Attackerman.) At a time, there was no greater test of a painter’s expression than to depict fruit and aromatics, subjects that in real space provoke strong sensory reactions. The work of Wayne Thiebaud (pronounced tee-bow) came several centuries later, but he’s of a similar mind. Of course, by the 1960s, food had become a fully vested product of mass culture.
Thiebaud’s works tests the balance between desire and revulsion. With his compositions, Thiebaud consciously apes the graphic illustrations of lifestyle magazines. His cakes look like those, meant for display and status signification rather than for eating. Thiebaud’s brushstroke is another story. He handled paint as if he were applying icing, slathering oil thickly on the canvas. His brushstroke is more appetizing than the cakes he depicts. In that sense, Thiebaud straddled an artistic line: He was far too invested in the evidence of his hand, the painterly stroke, to stand beside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as a Pop artist. (He also showed up slightly ahead of them.) But Thiebaud was also too wedded to content about mass production and realistic representation to be considered an expressionist who put the application of paint first.
Thiebaud worked for a time at a diner called The Mile High and Red Hot, a name that refers to ice-cream scoops and hot dogs. Maybe he had every reason to be as scolding as Waters comes across (to some), but Thiebaud’s work was often whimsical. The way the composition resolves with the jaunty, open layer cake in the right corner strikes me as punchy and light.