I’m confused: I’d read somewhere that 1 June was National Cake Day in the States, and I’d literally been sitting on my hands to keep from writing about today’s painting before now. I’d even trawled husband through town and had him catch eye-catching cakes on camera for the occasion (here are some of the juicy fruits of our labor):
I now can’t retrace my National Cake Day source, and in fact my search has hurled me headlong into a sticky internet mess of American Food Holidays: seriously, it seems no day is unfettered to feting some foodstuff or other. I hope you’re ready for the sugarplums to dance in your head, because here’s some of what we’re in for this month:
1 June National Hazelnut Cake Day (my mistake); 2 June National Rocky Road Day (how to celebrate?); 6 June National Applesauce Cake Day (yuk); 11 June National German Chocolate Cake Day (nein, danke); 12 June National Peanut Butter Cookie Day (could twist my arm); 14 June National Strawberry Shortcake Day (yes); 17 June National Cherry Tart Day (yes, yes); 22 June National Chocolate Eclair Day (not so much); 26 June National Chocolate Pudding Day (which way to the gym?); 29 June National Almond Buttercrunch Day (how much for a year’s membership?).
I hope that lot hasn’t left too-sweet a taste on the tongue, as I’m going to write about Cakes here anyway: it’s by the American artist Wayne Thiebaud and is surely one of the most tempting things at the NGA. Born in 1920 in Arizona, Thiebaud (pronounced ‘tee-bo’) spent his childhood in Long Beach, California. He developed an interest in the arts early on and as a young man worked various jobs to build his skills (apprentice at the Walt Disney Studio, cartoonist and designer, artist in the Air Force during World War II). After his release from duties in 1945, Thiebaud worked as a commercial artist for several years before making a commitment to a career in painting. He began formal studies at San Jose State University, then transferred to California State University at Sacramento, where he finished both a BA and MA in studio art and art education.
As a teacher and a painter, Thiebaud was always drawn to realism, admiring especially Johannes Vermeer, Jean-Siméon Chardin, and Thomas Eakins. By 1960 he’d selected from his menu of possible subjects and opted (most often) for production-line foods found in diners and cafeterias: pastries, pies, other delectables. So great was his taste for food fodder that people often asked if he’d been in the industry: the answer is no, aside from a short stint in a cafe called Mile High & Red Hot, where the ice creams were served ‘mile high’ and the hot dogs made ‘red hot’.
Cakes (from 1963) shows an array of baked beauties, teetering dream-like on stilted plates. There’s chocolate, angel-food, layer, custard-cream, fruit and all sorts to choose from. The saucer-shaped shadows sitting beneath seem to send the cakes soaring upwards towards us and are typical of Thiebaud. The acid colors ‘pop’, as does the heavy-set pigment application all round (seen in-the-flesh, the pasted-on-paint is staggering).
Thiebaud was associated with Pop art painters because of his interest in objects of mass culture (certainly his colors and shadows are characteristic of ad imagery). In fact, when his paintings first exhibited in 1962, they were taken as indictments of America’s increasingly shallow consumer culture. Thiebaud himself has always disputed this read, and says his subjects are nostalgic, rather than nasty. I’ll take Thiebaud’s interpretation any day, as well as a slice of that swirly one, please.