Sweets & Treats: Wayne Thiebaud in the Collection of the Norton Simon Museum

“You can eat a hundred hamburgers, and they all taste different; some are good and many are bad. You can’t tell what food tastes like by looking at it, any more than you can tell what people are like merely by looking at them.”*

Sweets & Treats: Wayne Thiebaud in the Collection of the Norton Simon Museum presents a selection of prints created by the artist in the 1960s. Although Thiebaud is primarily known for his thickly textured paintings depicting angel-food cake topped with creamy frosting, the artworks in Sweets & Treats show us a different side to his artistic practice by shedding the texture of his oils and engaging the imagery only in the print format.

The prints in this exhibition strip away the formal aspects of painting and let the viewer focus on the subject matter itself. Two-dimensional and monochromatic, the images ask us to ponder the exact meaning of nine slices of pie. Moving into the realm of multiples, in which prints, woodcuts, etchings and lithographs can be mechanically reproduced, Thiebaud shows us that his work is not just about the surface, texture and relief of painting; it is also about the abundance and uniformity apparent in every pie case in every diner in the country.

Thiebaud’s prints show his struggle with “a play on the closeness of similarities and dissimilarities.” This contradiction is represented in a lineup of seemingly identical pastries, each still retaining its individuality based on variations from recipe to recipe, baker to baker and diner to diner. Through the print medium, Thiebaud refers to a “consciousness of simultaneity” and sets up an allegory in which we must consider how alike we are to one another, yet also realize the “little discriminations and little insights” that set us apart as individuals. While his rich paintings magnify these discrepancies, his prints make the viewer focus on the idea that there is a collective consciousness.

* Wayne Thiebaud, from an interview conducted in 1968 with then-Curator at the Pasadena Art Museum, John Coplans