Currently Hanging

Thiebaud Reveals His Range: Cupcakes to Cityscapes

The painter Wayne Thiebaud, whose retrospective is currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art, has earned a niche-albeit an off-center one-in the history of 20th-century American art. His pictures of pies, pastries and parfaits gravitate toward the Day-Glo monolith that is Pop Art, yet remain distinctly and forever apart from it. Unlike the Pop artists, who utilized the mundane as a springboard for a blank-faced nihilism, Mr. Thiebaud trades in a blank-faced optimism. His enchantment with American life-its abundance, brightness and brashness-may be wry, but it’s also real. Each time he limns a gumball, hot dog or pinball machine, Mr. Thiebaud offers up a valentine to the commonplaces of common culture.

The paintings themselves are breezy in their assurance, luscious and clean. Mr. Thiebaud’s broad, cool and proprietary brushstroke is an ironic homage to the impastoed gravitas of Bay Area painters (and fellow Californians) like David Park and Elmer Bischoff, and an almost literal reiteration of the cake-frosting actualities of his subjects. Once Mr. Thiebaud hit upon his signature style in the early 1960’s, he never looked back. He never looked forward, either-as a painter, he’s as unremittingly one-note as Chaïm Soutine, albeit without the latter’s roiling emotionalism or intuitive sensuality. For Mr. Thiebaud, intuition and sensuality-forget emotionalism-are never an issue. He’s a painterly painter, sure, but he is, above all else, an efficient one. Each of his pictures is assembled from the same slick bag of pictorial tricks-rainbow outlines, glowing shadows, those nudgy in-your-face backgrounds-and they are trotted out over and over again. One doesn’t have the heart to say that once you’ve seen one Thiebaud, you’ve seen them all, but much like the over-rich and over-sweet confections seen in his paintings, a small helping goes a long way.

Mr. Thiebaud’s forays into figure-painting are given a small place at the Whitney, and mercifully so: Aspiring to the Hopper-esque, the pictures only prove how inadequate the artist’s mannerisms are when put in the service of the flesh-and-blood. Mr. Thiebaud’s subsequent cityscapes, however, constitute his strongest work. These amazing contraptions-with their steep roadways, clustered architecture and dramatic manipulations of space-look to the Ocean Park abstractions of his friend Richard Diebenkorn for inspiration, and this debt is graciously honored and rigorously built upon. Even so, Mr. Thiebaud’s tireless proficiency is dulling and, in this respect, he resembles no one so much as Andrew Wyeth, another archetypal Yankee whose pictorial know-how can’t redeem a paucity of spark.

Mr. Thiebaud has got his place in history-out on the San Francisco streets, standing to the side of Andy Warhol and in the shadow of Diebenkorn. But he’s a painter more static and constricted than his admirers might like to admit. Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until Sept. 23.

21 Reasons to View Still Lifes

Mr. Thiebaud has loaned his 1971 oil painting Four Cupcakes to Serial Thinking: An Exhibition of Still Life Painting by the Zeuxis group, currently on view at Kouros Gallery. In doing so, he’s made a generous gesture, as well as given his stamp of approval, to this “grass-roots project” of 21 artists, all of whom have dedicated themselves to the art of still-life painting. (Other veteran painters invited to participate are Biala, Niki Ketchman, Wilbur Niewald, Victor Pesce and Paul Resika.) Such generosity is deserved, even if no one’s going to mistake Serial Thinking for a significant step forward in culture: Zeuxis has yet to discern the difference between kowtowing to tradition and giving it an appreciative kick in the pants.

Yet the exhibition’s collective will is more than just admirable-it’s paid off in a handful of fine paintings. Margaret McCann’s Giant Still Life (1999) transmogrifies clutter, kitsch and an array of posies into a weird rumination on the quiddities of memory and the vastness of our planet. The razor-sharp clarity of Tim Kennedy’s Dichotomous Still Life with Mirror (1999) more than makes up for the title’s high-falutin’ adjective, and John Goodrich demonstrates that he knows a good blue when he sees one.

The finest artist of the bunch is Ruth Miller, whose pictures are a critic’s-or, at least, this critic’s-nightmare. Each of them is so intrinsically itself that words become not just difficult to locate, but silly, meaningless. This is, of course, what we expect from art, but Ms. Miller’s work makes a decisive, if largely unconscious, point of its ineradicable and essential silence. One thing that can be said about the artist is that she’s masterful in her modesty. As a painter, Ms. Miller is deft without being glib, serious without being stuffy and her own toughest critic. As much as I esteem her pictures, particularly 1998’s Red Cabbage, White Cabbage, I’m glad I can’t afford to put one over my sofa. If I could, I’d probably spend too much time attempting to plumb its off-the-cuff conundrums-and wouldn’t get a damn thing done. Serial Thinking: An Exhibition of Still Life Painting is at Kouros Gallery, 23 East 73rd Street, until Aug. 24.

Also Known As Captain Beefheart

Don Van Vliet, whose paintings from the 1980’s are the subject of an exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery, is best known as the musician Captain Beefheart-that is, to the extent to which the uncategorizable Captain is known at all. His magnum opus, 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, occupies far fewer CD players than Meet the Beatles for a reason: Its jutting, angular rhythms and garbled, guttural blues are, to put it blandly, an acquired taste. Given Captain Beefheart’s musical proclivities, the most surprising thing about his-or, rather, Mr. Van Vliet’s-paintings is how untaxing they are. The pictures, which depict a realm governed by magic and populated by hobgoblins, never grate, bump or jar. Instead, they ease into their primordial cosmos with a disarming, genial haste. They’re easy on the eyes.

How long Mr. Van Vliet had been painting prior to the 1980’s I don’t know, but the canvases at Werner seem to have been charged by the then-hot Neo-Expressionists, particularly the whoops-a-daisy figuration of George Baselitz and the ersatz primitivism of A.R. Penck. Mr. Van Vliet is less bombastic-hence, more engaging-than either man and responsible for some inspired tidbits of painting. The pink beast-baby at the bottom of Whalebone Farmhouse (1986), for instance, is magnificently clotted, and the title creature of Red Cloud Monkey (1985) is as lithe as it wants to be.

Such moments are few and far between, however, and the work, on the whole, is skimpy and received. Mr. Van Vliet shouldn’t give up his day job. But there are-and will be-worse painters. Don Van Vliet: Paintings from the Eighties is at Michael Werner Gallery, 4 East 77th Street, until Sept. 8.