McNay Art Museum exhibition celebrates California artist Wayne Thiebaud, who died on December 25 at the age of 101

For curator René Paul Barilleaux, the “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings” exhibition at the McNay Art Museum captures the late artist’s passion for his work.

“On my tours, I say the subjects are an excuse to make beautiful paintings,” said Barilleaux, curatorial affairs manager at McNay. “He loves putting paint on canvas — you can see that’s something he loves, the act of painting. For me, you don’t see the work in the work. It just seems effortless.

Thiebaud died at his home in Sacramento, California on Christmas Day. He was 101 years old.

“Even at 101, he still spent most of his days in the studio, driven by, as he described it with his characteristic humility, ‘this almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint,'” said one press release from Thiebaud’s gallery, Acquavella.

The traveling exhibit, which can be seen through Jan. 16 at the McNay, was organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to mark Thiebaud’s centennial. The McNay also features a companion exhibit exploring the friendship between him and fellow artist Beth Van Hoesen.

“Wayne Thiebaud 100” includes 100 works, including the lushly rendered desserts he was known for. In his images of cakes, pies and ice cream, the paint is applied as if they were generously proportioned icings or meringues.

“What he’s so good at is taking mundane, everyday things and elevating them to this almost iconic or religious feel,” Barilleaux said. “He isolates something, he presents it in a very frontal, almost theatrical way, giving it this great importance, and gives it this quality that transcends everyday life.

It gives Thiebaud’s work a timeless quality, he said.

“It won’t feel old-fashioned, it won’t be associated with any particular decade or movement,” he said. “I think he’s a recognized force in the art world. He said that he overcame so many trends and so many art fads and art trends and maintained his own vision until the end.

The New York Times obituary for Thiebaud noted precisely the passion for his work that Barilleaux mentions as he walks visitors through the exhibit. The story ended with a quote from the artist: “It has never ceased to amaze and amaze me, the magic of what happens when you put a bit of paint next to another .”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Reggie S. Williams