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N.Y. exhibit absolutely yummy

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NEW YORK — For those who want to have their cake and eat it too, the cafe at the Whitney Museum of American Art offers edible interpretations of Wayne Thiebaud's 1962 painting "Around the Cake" and his 1983 "Dark Candy Apples."

The biggest treat, though, is his cheery show, which celebrates creamy frosted cakes and gemlike gum balls.

"It's joyful, while a lot of modern art is angst-ridden," said Marla Prather, who organized the retrospective of the 80-year-old California artist.

With more than 100 paintings, watercolors, pastels and drawings, "Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective," on view at the Whitney through Sept. 23, traces the artist's work from the 1950s to 2001.

Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Ariz., and grew up in Sacramento, Calif., where he lives now. He started out as an animator for Walt Disney and later worked as a poster designer and commercial artist in California and New York before becoming a painter.

New York is the last stop for the exhibit, which has traveled across the country. But here, it includes almost 30 works not included in previous showings. Some, including the 1961 "Chocolate Meringue" and "Bologna and Cheese" and the 1962 "Fudge and Divinity" paintings, are from private collections and have seldom, if ever, been shown publicly.

It's a huge body of work and calls into question why Thiebaud has received so much less attention than Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Prather says the cultural divide between the coasts is partly to blame.

"People love the work, but many East Coasters tend to cast artists as 'California artists' and I think he's suffered from that slightly," she said.

Thiebaud, whose depictions of popular images came several years ahead of the Pop art of Andy Warhol, is most famous for his nostalgic images of food: cakes, pies, hot dogs, hamburgers, cheese, sausage, crackers, even gum balls.

"It really is sort of proto-Pop, but unlike Warhol he was never interested in advertising imagery. He was interested in the thing. It wasn't an ad about a pie, it was the pie itself," Prather explained, stepping toward a thickly frosted Thiebaud cake with her index finger poised as if to scoop up some frosting. (The paint is so thick that Thiebaud often carves his signature into the painting instead of writing it.)

"The oil paint is made to look like meringue. And with the cakes, you get this great sense of texture with the frosting. You just want to step close and lick it."

At the same time, there's an emptiness and melancholy reminiscent of Edward Hopper. Some of the pieces — the rows of lipsticks in "Eight Lipsticks" (1964) or the self-explanatory 1972 "Bow Tie, Pick and Shoe" — can be funny in a kind of deadpan way, but they aren't satirical in the way Pop art is. And many of the figures seem to dance on the fringes of abstraction.

"That interplay between abstraction and figuration and the way he uses the real world to express abstraction is the fundamental theme of Thiebaud's work," she said.

Organized thematically and chronologically, the show moves from Thiebaud's pinball machines and food images to his expressionless human figures of the 1960s, presented as objects on blank backgrounds. It then features galleries of his sloping San Francisco cityscapes, in which the streets appear as vertical as the gleaming skyscrapers.

The show ends with Thiebaud's most recent works, which continue to blur the distinction between representation and abstraction.

But now, instead of cakes and pies, they tend toward colorful nostalgic farm landscapes based on childhood memories of his grandfather's farm in California or his family's ranch in Utah. As at the beginning of his career, he is reminiscing about the images of his childhood — only now we see lush fields and rivers of instead of chiffon frosting.