Crafted with decadent shades of oil paint, Wayne Thiebaud’s Yo-yo‘s from 1962 is a visual and sensual delight. The artwork intricately depicts diagonal rows of yo-yos, each with its own brightly colored design. Each yo-yo is treated with unique attention. Cheeky stars, playful swirls and multi-colored bull’s eyes line the tops of the toys, creating an eye-catching variety of patterns. Slimy white brushstrokes curve around the base of each object, drawing the viewer’s eye to their neatly illustrated form. Thiebaud began painting objects such as yo-yos in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an exercise in composition, resulting in a series of still life paintings. Throughout history, artists like the Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Jean-Baptiste Chardin have consistently used the practice of still life painting to hone their skills. In many European still lifes, the tables abound with opulent spreads of exotic fruits, fine wines and blooming flowers. Preserved in time and cast in dramatic chiaroscuro, the subjects of these paintings never age or wither. Rather, they serve as an everlasting testament to the richness of a bygone era.
Thiebaud expressed his admiration for these painters, remarking that “mundane objects are constantly changing, and when I paint the ones I remember, I’m like Chardin telling what we were. Pies, for example, we now see will not last forever. We are simply used to the idea that things do not change” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Nash and A. Gopnik, Wayne Thiebaud: a retrospective of paintings, ex cat. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 19). Steeped in nostalgia, Thiebaud’s still lifes pay homage to the material abundance of the 1950s and 1960s. By focusing on the mass-produced yo-yo toy, Thiebaud elevates everyday objects and redefines the still life genre. In the present work, Thiebaud draws attention to the beauty that exists in ordinary objects by showing the variety they can have sitting side by side with nothing distracting the viewer’s gaze. From a seemingly ordinary object, Thiebaud is able to disentangle a charged meaning and a hidden visual potential. In what he calls “object isolation”, Thiebaud explains “the spatial inference I want is that of an isolated, ultra-clear, bright, air-conditioned atmosphere that could be somehow agitated around the objects and echoing their presence. is what I aim for. For this reason, uninterrupted single-color backgrounds are used, allowing the brushstrokes to better see each other and play their part” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in R .Teagle, Wayne Thiebaud 1958-1968, ex. cat. Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Davis, 2018, p. 23).
Acquired directly from the artist by Nina Van Rensselaer of Sacramento, who considered Wayne a mentor to her, Yo-yo‘s has been passed down in the same private collection for six decades. A ceramic art student, formally trained at the University of California, Davis, Nina had a strange and eccentric eye. It was at the UC Davis Art Department in the mid-1960s where she enjoyed creative freedom and befriended West Coast artists, such as David Arneson, David Gilhooly, William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud. She recalls Thiebaud’s work from the 1960s, “[h]We will tell you that it was not Pop Art; however, I think there was some influence. He was definitely painting an object, and it was an iconic object, and I think that’s what he meant… You see, he had these little halo lines… he was always very excited about of these. We had to work very hard on our white. But you also had to make the halos” (N. Van Rensselaer quoted in T. Hanlon’s The frog in the pond2017).
In the present work, yellow, red, and pink yo-yos lie in neat rows, similar to the formation of Thiebaud’s confectionery rows. The toys glow from an invisible light source, while cool blue shadows appear against green borders. On his formal fascination with the plastic toy, Thiebaud said, “Cakes, appetizers and yo-yos are all related to each other due to common surface decoration. Reels, bars, crosses, stars and other geometric and heraldic devices are shared in common. I don’t know why they are used, but they are fascinating nonetheless. I got tired of painting cakes, and the yoyos look different…they’re split in the middle and flatter in shape. They posed different formal problems” (W. Thiebaud quoted in J. Coplans, Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Pasadena Art Museum, 1968, p. 34). Using a method called haloing, Thiebaud incorporated unconventional and often contrasting colors into his paintings to capture the feel of each object, rather than their exact appearance.
His vibrant color palettes and focus on consumer objects linked him to Pop Art contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, as well as pioneering artists who preceded him, including Robert Rauschenberg. and Jasper Johns. Like Warhol, Thiebaud began his career in advertising. The artist has worked on publications such as Men‘swear and Women‘s Wear daily, and as an announcer for Rexall Drug Company. Thiebaud’s tendency to display objects in orderly repetition, à la Pop, reflects his background in commercial art.
However, Thiebaud distinguished himself from Pop artists by painting objects with a serious feeling. Rather than criticizing consumerism, Thiebaud channels the ideals of American affluence championed by artistic ancestors such as Norman Rockwell. Her work evokes the simple childhood pleasures of sitting at a restaurant counter, indulging in sweet confectionery, or in this case, playing with a favorite toy. From rows of yo-yos to the bright arcade of Four Pinball Machines, Thiebaud’s unassuming subject matter and bold color palettes evoke a heartfelt, joyful nostalgia for everyday America.
The year 1962 was a pivotal year for the artist: in April, he opened his first personal exhibition in New York at the Allan Stone Gallery. After being rejected by every other dealer he approached, Thiebaud embarked on a relationship with Stone that would last over four and a half decades. On the heels of the exhibition’s critical acclaim, Thiebaud was invited to participate in the group exhibition of Sidney Janis, New Realists. It was here that his striking images sparked critical interest, and institutional and commercial success followed. Included in the major traveling exhibition of the late 1970s, Wayne Thiebaud: Investigation 1947-1976, Yo-Yo‘s hung alongside other iconic 1962 masterpieces, including Four Pinball Machines, Charcuterie Counter, in the Menil Collection in Houston, candy counter, in the Anderson Collection at Stanford University, jackpot machine, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and around the cakeat the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas.
Over a career spanning seven decades, Thiebaud established a reputation as one of the leading proponents of figurative painting. His paintings capture the emotional resonance of a bygone era, transforming ordinary, everyday objects into objects of quiet beauty. His abundant paintings of restaurant counters, toys, and rows of lavish pastries capture America’s post-war prosperity as much as Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s Soup cans. Yet his meticulous painterly style helped revive what had previously been the calm genre of still life before Thiebaud seized upon it in the early 1960s. Thiebaud continued to paint before dying in 2021 at age 101 years old. He is remembered for his deliciously rich color palettes and precise focus on everyday objects. The artist once said in an interview “I am delighted when people can smile at the work, and I hope she has a sense of humor and joy” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Larsen, “Oral History Interview with Wayne Thiebaud, May 17-18, 2001”, Smithsonian Archives of American Art). Yo-yo depicts one of the artist’s iconic subjects, imbuing the work with the joy that characterized Thiebaud’s life and career.