There is just something about landscape art that helps transport me to past times and places. I was reminded of this quality once again this week, with my consideration of Three Cows, a drypoint etching by the American painter Wayne Thiebaud. Specifically, it brought me back to California.
I am an East Coaster through and through—I was born in Maryland, and I lived there until I graduated from college. Just over a decade ago, however, after a couple of years in Brooklyn I left the East Coast for California, specifically to attend graduate school at Stanford, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had never been to California before I flew out there for a post-acceptance visit, and I was immediately struck by the differences between the East Coast and California—indeed, the West more generally. The first thing I noticed was the sky. It tends to be larger, more open, even in the foothills that ring Silicon Valley. There is also, perhaps more insistently, a quality of the light that probably comes from the dry, thin air and the relatively brown, scrubby nature of the vegetation. Basically, California is a lot like you hear it is: big and bright.
Thiebaud is undoubtedly best known today for his depictions of the mundane contents of the midcentury American dessert case—cakes, pies, and ice creams all rendered in thick, almost gelatinous impasto. Lesser known, even among art historians, are his depictions of the American landscape, specifically that wide-open Western landscape I have already mentioned.1 I certainly count myself among that group that did not fully appreciate him before beginning my research on Three Cows. Born in Mesa, Arizona and raised in Long Beach, in Southern California, Thiebaud has spent nearly his whole life in the West, save for a brief stint in New York during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism.2 He first began painting the California landscape in the 1960s, just after achieving early renown for the aforementioned pie pictures. Specifically, he looked to the agricultural landscape around Sacramento, where he has lived since college (he is also known for his association with nearby UC Davis, where he taught from 1960 to his retirement in 1991).3
Three Cows was created in collaboration with San Francisco’s famed Crown Point Press in 1991, but it is based on a 1966 pastel drawing that is still in the artist’s collection.4 Thiebaud—who has said he paints based on memory as much as he does from life—may have based the drawing and print on his memories of Southern California, or of visits to family in Utah or Arizona.5 To me, however, the presence of the cattle makes this scene likely to take place in the Central Valley, the fecund agricultural region of Central California that is bordered by the Sierras to the east and the smaller Pacific Coast Range to the west. As the art historian Margaretta Lovell has written, the Sierras dominate Thiebaud’s depictions of mountains, and he is most interested in the ways they seem to exist apart from the world, standing in relation only to the sky that surrounds them.6 Three Cows has just that quality, which it combines with that bright, open feeling that saturates California and the West. The cattle are resolute in their encounter with the intense sun, marching stolidly down the slope towards—one hopes—some shade or water. The print is also a master class in drypoint etching, with Thiebaud using an absolute riot of lines to build up the surface of the mountainside and the shadows of the titular bovines. All in all, these details bring a smile to my face as I recall the warm sunshine of the Golden State.
1 Margaretta Lovell, “City, River, Mountain: Wayne Thiebaud’s California,” Panorama 3, no. 2 (2017): 1.
2 Wayne Thiebaud, Michael Zakian, and Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Wayne Thiebaud: Works on Paper, 1948-2004, 2014, 8–11.
3 Thiebaud, Zakian, and Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, 21–22.
4 Wayne Thiebaud et al., Wayne Thiebaud (New York, New York: Acquavella Galleries : Rizzoli, 2012), 90.
5 Thiebaud, Zakian, and Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Wayne Thiebaud, 23.
6 Lovell, “City, River, Mountain,” 15.