“Coastal Village,” 1992, by Wayne Thiebaud
Photo: Berggruen Gallery
“Street and Shadow”, 1982-1983/1996 by Wayne Thiebaud
Photo: Wayne Thiebaud, Crocker Art Museum, gift of the artist
Richard Diebenkorn, “Ingleside” (1963)
Photo: © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Edward Hopper’s street scenes were an influence on Wayne Thiebaud, like this one, Hopper’s “New York Corner.”
Photo: Fraenkel Gallery
In 1972, Sacramento painter Wayne Thiebaud bought a second home on Potrero Hill and set about doing for the hilly streets of San Francisco what he had done for desserts — making them more dramatic and mesmerizing than they already were.
Thiebaud (pronounced “Tee-bo”) did this by standing at the intersections that Steve McQueen had famously driven in “Bullitt” and trying to figure out how to transfer what he saw into oil. In conceiving the series, Thiebaud liked to credit “Krazy Kat,” the comic strip. “Cartoons allow the silly to sit with the sublime,” he later said.
A subliminal influence was Richard Diebenkorn, the California landscape painter who had been using geometric shapes to create abstract street grids 10 years before Thiebaud started doing it.
The first 20 or so oil paintings that Thiebaud created of the streets of San Francisco he judged as a failure. So he started following the system of his other major influence, Edward Hopper. In studying Hopper, Thiebaud learned that Hopper had done his urban street life paintings by sketch. He’d then combine several of them into a single painting back in his studio, which allowed the memory and imagination to do their part.
So Thiebaud went back out to the streets and drew hundreds of sketches that were then assembled into paintings in his studio.
“That dialogue between what was there and what was made up became the basis of the series,” he said, according to a catalog essay by Scott Shields, associate director and chief curator at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.
In 1979, the series made its debut in New York when the Allan Stone Gallery presented “Wayne Thiebaud: San Francisco Paintings.” Forty years later, he was still working the subject. “Sunset Streets Study,” from 2019, is the most recent of his 100 works being shown at the Crocker in honor of Thiebaud’s 100th birthday. The exhibit opens Friday, Oct. 16.
Five of his best paintings from the series, along with some drawings and etchings he created at Crown Point Press, are in the show “Wayne Thiebaud,” opening Friday, Oct. 16, at Berggruen Gallery. Another eight paintings and drawings from the series are in the show at the Crocker.
“The streetscapes are among the most abstract work that Thiebaud makes,” says retired Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais. “By looking at them, we get a better sense of how his brain works and his understanding of form. That helps us understand his more popular works like the cakes and pies.”