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Old Media / New Visions: Wayne Thiebaud’s Landscapes

Margaretta Lovell, U. C. Berkeley

The thrust of the Call for Papers is toward “media” as a term signaling novelty, digitization, and globalization, indeed, signaling the communication revolutions of the present, but I elect to understand it in its more universal guise, as a neutral, temporally-unspecific term underlining the vehicle as a component of “the message,” whatever and whenever that message might be.

It is a curious fact that the revolutions of Western culture of a century ago toward Taylorism, interchangeable parts, and the American System of Manufactures that produced prosperity and cheap material goods for so many, did not erase the world of craft, or one-off production of goods, indeed the opposite occurred:  luxury goods became increasingly identified with the realm of the hand-made rather than that of the machine-perfected.  Modernism spawned anti-modernism; capitalism’s media became the magical abstract perfections and replications of the machined and the digital (Philip Johnson’s Glass house and Worldcat page), but capitalism’s supreme value-per-inch media remained the individual, the unique, the personal (deKooning, Pollock).  The interiors of the hypermodern structures of mid-20th century were encrusted with gestural and drip-paintings, expressive, the critics assured us, of American liberty, freedom, and individualism in a cold war culture.  Easel painting, in other words, as a medium of value and expression should have died.  It should have become an historic curiosity but instead it flourished.  And it continues to flourish.

I bring this up not to rehearse the sale eight years ago of Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 for $ 140 M (or Jasper Johns Flag of 1954 for $110), except to underline the persistence of value in this outdated medium, value as judged by our crudest yardstick—dollars.  In other words, this is an example of resistance to the hypothesis that “changes in communicative technologies have been affecting American culture’s understanding and performance of itself.”  America performs itself in Facebook, but equally in the act of venerating these archaic objects.  Any analysis of “Capitalism and its Media” needs to attend to the curious phenomenon of oil-on-canvas as a communicative medium that remains alive and very well.

But whatever magic Pollock’s and deKooning’s midcentury works have for audiences now (in a medium perfected in the 15th century), others made in the present by California artist Wayne Thiebaud, speak equally to audiences today, arresting them with vivid and thought-provoking images of human-altered space and human habitation in three California ecologies:  San Francisco streetscapes, Sacramento River delta landscapes, and the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Landscape painting has been an important genre in western art since the 17th century and has flourished as a way for artists to describe, and their audiences to understand, the relation between humans and the natural world, between nations and their homelands.  Landscapes tend to be politically charged; Unlike the Pollock drip paintings they describe elements familiar from the ambient world; they look as though they are about nature but they are usually about human-made spaces, human activities, and psychological states.

The medium itself--oil on canvas stretched on wood supports affixed to a wall, centered about 5’ 5” off the floor--tells us we must attend to its message as we might to poetry.  And it tells us that that looking may be rewarded.  This rewarding is structured with the many tales Americans tell themselves (and others) about themselves and their relationship to the hospitable continent they have occupied so completely.  These images do not flicker, speak, flash; they hang still and draw the viewer toward them, telling stories of American conquest of land, stories of a precarious conquest.  XX  speaks of the willfulness of planting a streetgrid on mountainous terrain, and it therefore speaks of the power of the grid as an idea and the uncomfortable psychological result of that hubris.  XX  describes the dyke-constructed rich agricultural landscape of the Sacramento delta where fields dangerously below sea level yield jewel-like patterns of plowlands and water courses.  While vibrant color and luscious brushwork seduce our eyes, there is nevertheless a sense of vertigo in the San Francisco images, and an undertone of threat in the water-soaked dykes, but those foreboding notes grow loud in the mountain scenes where habitation clings to precipitous gigantic edges, and road cuts suggest not such much mastery of the natural world as its immanent triumph over human efforts.  Thiebaud’s twenty-first century America is exuberant and beautiful but also foreboding, his works are as much about paint as a medium as they are about the golden state, the value of looking, the covert danger within the quotidian, and the value of art.

John F. Kennedy Institute