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Pop or Not?

Some scholars believe Wayne Thiebaud is a Pop artist. Others disagree.


Wayne Thiebaud, Three Machines, 1963. Oil on canvas, 30x36 1/2in. (76.2x92.7cm). San Francisco, CA. Museum purchase, Walter H. and Phyllis J. Shorenstein Foundation Fund, the Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Income Fund, with additional funds from Claire E. Flagg, the Museum Society Auxiliary, Mr. and Mrs. George R. Roberts, Mr. and Mrs. John N. Rosekrans, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Robert Bransten, Mr. and Mrs. Steven MacGregor Read, and Bobbie and Mike Wilsey, from the Morgan Flagg Collection, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. ©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What artistic style do you think Thiebaud worked in to create the painting above?

In the 1950s, a group of artists began exploring popular culture and media through their work. They made comments about America’s mass-produced culture. Their work became known as Pop art. Some art historians associate American painter Wayne Thiebaud with the Pop art movement. But not everyone—including Thiebaud—agrees that his work belongs to this artistic movement.

Thiebaud is best known for his still lifes, which show repeating or similar images of common desserts and other objects against sparse backgrounds. His subject matter and compositions have characteristics in common with Pop art. For example, Pop artists experimented with visual styles from advertisements, film, and comic books. Early in his career, Thiebaud drew ads and cartoons, and designed movie posters. Like a Pop artist, he uses techniques he learned at these jobs in his artwork. In the 1960s, curators first exhibited his work alongside that of Pop artists, including Andy Warhol.

Others argue that Thiebaud is not a Pop artist but an Abstract Expressionist. This movement developed in the 1940s. Abstract Expressionists emphasize spontaneity and expression in their work. Thiebaud embraces some of these traits. For example, he uses thick, expressive brushstrokes. Critics also note that Thiebaud doesn’t paint only still lifes—he also creates landscapes. The artist renders paintings of cities and countrysides from unusual, sometimes abstract, perspectives.

Some experts say that though Thiebaud’s art is based on observations of American life, the artist isn’t making critical statements about fame and commercialism. Thiebaud agrees. He says his work isn’t intended to be critical of American culture. But he doesn’t think his work is abstract either. In fact, he doesn’t believe his work fits into either art movement at all.

What do you think: 

Do Thiebaud’s paintings belong to an artistic movement, and if so, which one?

Tell us what you think.
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