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Wayne Thiebaud's Pop art license plate design

June 29, 2010 |  1:30 pm
ARTS
In 1994, the year President Clinton presented the National Medal of Arts to painter Wayne Thiebaud, the artist's design for California's first specialty license plate began turning up on streets and freeways around the state. As graphic design it's lovely -- and an authentic example of Pop art.

Now the California Arts Council is optimistically hoping to raise at least $40 million for arts funding through an aggressive effort to sell Thiebaud's plates. The project even has its own Facebook page -- "Million Plates Campaign." With 73,000 such plates currently registered, there's a long way to go to reach that number by the January target date.

Sunny optimism is integral to Thiebaud's design. But so is a subject not immediately associated with the painter, albeit one that has in fact been a long-standing preoccupation.

Thiebaud Beach Boys 1959 LAM Thiebaud, 89, is most widely known for paintings that merge the visual tactility of creamy paint with luscious food, from pastry to ice cream. But a quirky 2007 survey of 53 paintings at the Laguna Art Museum took a different tack: Three out of five works in "Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting" instead showed life in and around the California seashore.

So does the license plate. For so humble an object, the lovely design is unexpectedly trenchant.

What I wrote of paintings in the Laguna show -- like the one pictured here of two boys playing in the sand, with the surf pounding behind them -- also applies to the plate's starker, less atmospheric design: "[The] nearly squint-inducing light is almost always sharp and bright. Daylight whiteness near the ocean harbors neon-rainbow highlights, while shadows tend toward sky-reflective blue, rather than colorless black."

Cezanne Bather c. 1885 MOMA Thiebaud's beach paintings are usually populated with bathers, a theme in Modern art as old as the work of Paul Cezanne, also shown here, and as central to California art as that of David Park (in the north) and David Hockney (in the south). The license plate's image frames the empty space in the center, where the numbers go, with a shrinking perspective of palm trees at the left and a setting sun at the right. A surprisingly poignant note is added to the bather lineage.

Modern paintings of bathers ruminate on the distance that yawns between the idyllic, Utopian innocence of Eden and the destabilizing corruption of life as it is actually lived. Paradise, as John Milton warned us, is lost. Cezanne's bather steps tentatively forward into a new and radically different world.

So it is with the Pop art license plate. Bolted to the rear of an automobile, symbol of mobility and freedom and petroleum-fueled object of environmental destruction, Thiebaud's pointed design for America's Golden State put that implacable meditation on wheels.

-- Christopher Knight
twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: Wayne Thiebaud, "Arts license plate," 1994; Credit: California DMV; "Beach Boys," 1959; Credit: Laguna Art Museum; Paul Cezanne, "Bather," circa 1885; Credit: Museum of Modern Art; From left, Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, William Turner and Karen Skelton join Maria Shriver and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Million Plates campaign launch at Fox Studios. Credit: Office of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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