Studio visit: Wayne Thiebaud

The much-loved artist, who celebrates his 100th birthday this year, discusses the audacity of the artist’s vocation, and why he doesn't believe in ‘the idea of success’ — plus we unveil his greatest painting ever to be offered at auction

‘I knew this was not a good career choice,’ admits Wayne Thiebaud in his sun-drenched California studio. ‘Most of the painters I knew were just barely able to survive and had other jobs,’ continues the artist who will celebrate his 100th birthday on 15 November. ‘But I don’t believe in the idea of success; when we surrender ourselves to that, I think we’ve lost something special.’

In spite, or perhaps because of this logic, Thiebaud is an immensely successful artist. ‘I was lucky,’ he reasons. When he decided to paint, he recalls asking himself, ‘How do I do this?’ — realising that the answer was, ‘with extreme difficulty’. As an artist, he says, ‘you probably won't be able to make a living, but you can make a life.’

Thiebaud considers paintings ‘alternate universes’, with his own abstractions being inspired by syncopation in music. ‘Sometimes I'm successful. Sometimes I fail,’ he reflects. ‘I'm not showing off. My work is about human things.’ 

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Four Pinball Machines, 1962. Estimate $20,000,000–30,000,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 14 May at Christie‘s in New York. Artwork © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud  Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Four Pinball Machines, 1962. Estimate: $20,000,000–30,000,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 14 May at Christie‘s in New York. Artwork: © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Four Pinball Machines (1962), one of the largest canvases Thiebaud painted during the early 1960s, will be offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s  in New York. The greatest Thiebaud painting to come to auction, it is set to establish a new world record price for the artist. The current record was set last May at Christie’s with Eating Figures (Quick Snack) from 1963.

Alongside Thiebaud’s cakes, ties, and gumball machines, pinball machines became a central part of his early body of work. The Arizona-born artist began depicting the arcade games in 1956 with Pinball Machine, a highly abstracted mixed media painting that depicts a single machine alongside a gumball dispenser and a stool with a Coca-Cola bottle. Penny Machines  followed in 1961, along with Star Pinball, from 1962, and Twin Jackpots, also from 1962. Of all his arcade game paintings, though, Four Pinball Machines is by far the largest and most aesthetically and conceptually complex.

For something so seemingly innocuous and American, the pinball machine has a long and chequered history. They came of age during the Depression with the production of the first coin-operated machine, but until the first ‘flippers’ were added in 1947, pinball was a very different game, with players at the mercy of the random bounce of the ball. 

Thiebaud painted Four Pinball Machines in 1962, a pivotal year in his career
Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Three Cones, 1964. Oil on board. 13 x 14 ¾ in (33 x 37.5 cm). Estimate $2,000,000-3,000,000. Property from the Collection of Marguerite Cullman

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Three Cones, 1964. Oil on board. 13 x 14 ¾ in (33 x 37.5 cm). Estimate $2,000,000-3,000,000. Property from the Collection of Marguerite Cullman

Soon players started gambling on the outcomes of games and operators would often encourage them by handing out prizes ranging from gum to jewellery to the winners. This drew the attention of religious groups and civic authorities who claimed that the machines were encouraging young people to steal coins, skip school and go hungry as they wasted their money during countless hours playing the arcades.

The pinball industry also began to attract the attention of organised crime, and by the end of the 1930s, criminal interests were said to control large sections of the business. By the 1940s, the mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, claimed that the pinball industry took in millions of dollars a year from the ‘pockets of school children’. After cracking down on illegal slot machines, LaGuardia made the prohibition of the ‘insidious nickel stealers’ the target of his next crusade.

The New York City council passed a law banning pinball machines in January 1942, just 20 years before Thiebaud painted Four Pinball Machines. Police carried out a series of raids on candy stores, bowling alleys, bars and arcades across the city, confiscating 2,000 machines — a fifth of the total number city-wide — and smashing them to bits in front of reporters before dumping the remains in the Long Island Sound.

Other cities followed suite, and soon the authorities in Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles banned the machines. Pinball’s seedy reputation continued for decades, and even as late as 1960, the Republicans tried to smear presidential candidate John F. Kennedy by releasing a picture of him with a man who was part of an Indiana pinball operation.

Thiebaud’s paintings of pinball machines, lollipop trees, cakes, and diner counters have become icons of the Pop age

Thiebaud painted Four Pinball Machines in 1962, which proved to be a pivotal year in his career. In April, he opened his first New York solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery and later the same year he was honoured with a solo museum exhibition, An Exhibition of Paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Following the critical success of his New York exhibition, he was then invited to take part in a group show — New Realists — at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan, where his paintings garnered favourable reviews in the New York Times, Artforum, Time, Newsweek, and ARTnews. Many of the other major paintings that Thiebaud completed during this important year are now in major museum collections.

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)
Study for Delicatessen Counter, 1964. Pastel on paper. 10 ¼ x 11 ¼ in (26 x 28.6 cm). Estimate $600,000-800,000. Property from the Collection of Jeremy Stone
Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920) Study for Delicatessen Counter, 1964. Pastel on paper. 10 ¼ x 11 ¼ in (26 x 28.6 cm). Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Property from the Collection of Jeremy Stone

Alongside Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola Bottles, and Roy Lichtenstein’s Comic Books, Thiebaud’s paintings of pinball machines, lollipop trees, cakes, and diner counters have become icons of the Pop age. But far from merely celebrating the consumerism of the American post-war economic boom, these paintings see Thiebaud asking more important questions.

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Valley Studio Palo Alto, 1966. Pastel and graphite on board. 9 ¾ x 14 in (24.8 x 35.6 cm). Estimate $250,000-350,000. Property from the Collection of Jeremy Stone 

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Valley Studio Palo Alto, 1966. Pastel and graphite on board. 9 ¾ x 14 in (24.8 x 35.6 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. Property from the Collection of Jeremy Stone 

As with many Pop artists, Thiebaud began life as a commercial artist, and this informed his choice of subject to an extent. But, unlike most Pop Art, which casts an ironic and sometimes critical or satirical eye on consumer culture, his view is not at all jaundiced, but rather celebratory, appreciative, fond even, although often tinged with nostalgia, and perhaps some sadness.

As such, a complex mixture of memory, desire and longing figure in his paintings. ‘I love it when people smile at my work. It’s for pleasure really,’ he says. ‘It would be nice if you could feel you’re creating some works that are worth looking at, uniquely. That’s an audacious quest, but a great one.’