(San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase with the aid of funds from public subscription, William L. Gerstle Fund, Fund of the ‘80s, Clinton Walker Fund, and Thomas W. Weisel; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel)

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)

Sunset Streets, 1985

Displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Great Works, In Focus

California dreamy

Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Sunset Streets’ is a masterwork of intense color and dramatic perspective

Wayne Thiebaud’s “Sunset Streets” (1985) is displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchased with the aid of funds from public subscription, William L. Gerstle Fund, Fund of the ’80s, Clinton Walker Fund and Thomas W. Weisel; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York; photo by Katherine Du Tiel)

It’s only when you get up close to Wayne Thiebaud’s “Sunset Streets” that you recognize the teasing game it plays. Near and far, flat and receding . . . the whole thing is a wonder of pictorial construction, and one of the most beautiful 20th-century paintings by an American.

Thiebaud, who is 98, is a maestro with color, and specifically colored shadow. He has made a career from his astute hunch that the borders between things are where all the action is. He rims the objects he paints — often pies, cupcakes, ice cream cones or candy machines — with multiple lines of vivid, contrasting color. He does the same with their shadows.

These lines mediate between the objects themselves and their surroundings until the whole ensemble starts to quiver, like a strummed chord.

Wayne Thiebaud’s “Sunset Streets” (1985) is displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchased with the aid of funds from public subscription, William L. Gerstle Fund, Fund of the ’80s, Clinton Walker Fund and Thomas W. Weisel; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York; photo by Katherine Du Tiel)

The color intensification is not affectless and artificial, as in a screen print by Andy Warhol. Your perceptions don’t feel traduced. They’re heightened, as happens when you’re walking through the streets of San Francisco on a summer evening and golden, slanted light ignites everything it hits, casting dramatic, diagonal shadows, and you can’t believe how preposterously gorgeous it all is.

“Sunset Streets,” which was painted in 1985, embodies this sharpened state better than any painting I know. You notice first the wide, steep highway, cast in bluish shadow by the buildings on the left. As it escapes the urban canyon to curve over the sun-kissed saddle above, the road appears bleached.

But even that distant stretch feels within easy reach because Thiebaud has flattened the painting’s space. He has removed the middle ground between steep rises and orchestrated a weird, brain-bending spatial crunch between the flat sides of the buildings, most of them exactly parallel to the picture plane, and our bird’s-eye view of the road.

He renders the flat sides of the buildings as clean blocks of bright paint: white, yellow and tan. Here, too, it’s the edges that create all the interest, limned as they are in blue, orange, yellow and green.

Thiebaud’s cityscapes are indebted to Richard Diebenkorn, a fellow painter­poet of Californian light who, in turn, revered Henri Matisse. The debt is plain. But Thiebaud broke through into a vision that is entirely his own and that hits the eye with happy, hallucinatory intensity.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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