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Guest Column

Wayne Thiebaud: Clowns – An Appreciation 

By Hedy Buzan

Laguna Art Museum has reopened with a treasure of a show – Wayne Thiebaud: Clowns. It is a treat.

There is something extraordinary in the final works of great artists. When an artist has spent a life exploring the meaning and range of painting as openly and honestly as Thiebaud, there is something otherworldly in the work. All is truth, the unessential is stripped away. A lifetime of skills come up against the wisdom of age and newly resonant work emerges. We see this in Monet, Bonnard, and Klee, and in Thiebaud’s clowns.

And since it is Thiebaud, the work is simultaneously accessible and deep, rooted in art history and slyly funny, idiosyncratic yet universal. Clowns are of course a weighted subject. Tragic and comic, the clown entertains in his own liminal space between artifice and greater truth. He is egotistic, the butt of jokes, given to pratfalls and misconceptions, his time in the spotlight fleeting, his true identity masked in an absurd costume and a mask of greasepaint.

These clowns are existential artists, parading our foibles out before us in all their absurd self-important glory. We look and laugh at them as we recognize ourselves. But Thiebaud is not only spectator but actor. He too knows what it is to be an artist as a public figure. So we see clowns wrestling with fame, a Jack-in-the-Box clown with his apprentice, mauled by an Animal Crackers tiger, loving and loathing the spotlight, his only pal his circus dog. The clown is a lonely figure.

Guest Column Wayne Thiebaud Clowns

Click on photo for a larger image

Submitted photo

Wayne Thiebaud, “Clown and Circle,” 2015, oil on board, © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Right Society (ARS), NY

But these clowns are not so lonely, they have one another. The galleries are populated by references to other artists, also in the guise of clowns. There is a large drawing of a dog with his Picasso-like clown owner, in trademark striped shirt, another where a Cezanne-like clown drapes an arm over his Thiebaud-like pal, a silver wigged portrait calls out Andy Warhol, an elderly clown evokes Daumier’s barristers and simultaneously is an observation of the vagaries of age: the stoop, the elephantine ears, the reddened nose.

But beyond the iconography is the work itself. The drawing is magnificent. This is an artist who draws like an angel, a just reward for drawing every day for an entire life. On display are three exceptional studies for larger works that stand alone as accomplished pieces. The first, in brush and ink, of a clown and his dog is like an Asian Zen drawing, not a line out of place; the second of clowns peeking out behind a central figure (multiple personalities?) could be a master class in gesture drawing; while a third in blunted pencil carries the ragged pathos of Charlie Chaplin.

Several large pieces are great virile charcoal drawings. Thiebaud retains his chops. The large Picasso-like clown and dog mentioned above includes a secret palimpsest under-drawing on the left. The work looks like a preparatory drawing for a painting that was halted, as if Thiebaud walked back into the studio and recognized it as an extant magical piece of art and left it alone.

Or did he? On closer examination there is a novel streak of red paint. In his lifetime oeuvre of works filled with linear brushstrokes, thick impasto paint, or the random idiosyncratic gesture, Thiebaud points out the artifice inherent in his work. Art is a parallel magical reality...just like the circus.

Finally, at the end of the show is a lovely little multi-colored self portrait of Thiebaud from twenty years previous. A tour de force of highly colored paint with a magical dance of hair rendered as free brushstrokes, it reminded this writer of a small portrait of Watteau at the Gulbenkian Museum. It reveals Thiebaud as an amazingly skilled prankster: the clown among us revealing and reveling in the Greater Truth.

Go see this show. It is awesome.

Advance tickets for timed entry are available at

Laguna Art Museum is located at 307 Cliff Dr on the corner of North Coast Hwy and Cliff Drive.


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