[Wayne] Thiebaud’s painting implies—in its evident sources, in its immanent effects—that a crucial American tradition in art is the eccentric empirical tradition, a tradition that begins at the beginning of American art with Audubon and weaves in and out of the conventional boundaries of illustration and commerce and high art and low, taking in at once “naive” artists like the simple fruit painters of the nineteenth century, illustrators such as N. C. Wyeth, forgotten painters like Selden Gile, and more acknowledged (if hard to place) masters like Stetteheimer and Cornell and Oldenburg and Steinberg. (Thiebaud himself might throw de Kooning and Johns in there, too, as more eccentric than we allow.) The elements of this eccentric empirical tradition, which prefers the Weird Fact to the Big Romance, are complicated, but its shared traits are evident. There is, first, a love of craft, though this need not be craft in the obvious sense, of skill at depicting the way things look. (Though for Thiebaud himself, of course, this is of great consequence.) It may involve craft in the other sense; the belief that artists should be quietly crafty—shrewd, able to calculate their effects, and create something that may seem naive and merely assembled, but that is in fact composed and knowing. This craftiness, whether that of Cornell making his boxes or of Ryder among his potions and lacquers painting his nocturnes, is a bedrock principle of the eccentric empirical.
Next, the subject of and materials of the American eccentric empirical must usually be ordinary experience, just what there is and recorded for its own sake—not, as Audubon puts it, at the service of a sublime system, but at liberty, dispersed. It involves a readiness to, in Johns’s famous words, take something and do something to it (and then do something else to it, the part that gets forgotten), which in turn involves a pragmatic willingness to see the world is just things, and more things, and still more things, and that’s enough. You love the things for their thingness, not in spite of it. And this acceptance of the world-as-things is tied to an urge to find some style so conventionally inexpressive that you can make it completely yours. Art can shade over, in the eccentric empirical tradition, into scientific description or ornithological illustration or found objects or commercial art or technical drawing or even into the forms of window display, and benefit from the shading over. There is, within this tradition and evident in Thiebaud, a belief that real feeling will come from its suppression within a system of design. It is not sublimation or understatement, but a soulfulness that comes from having a lot invested in the “wrong,” or at least the unconventional, object. It is a tradition whose sign is the dumb thing transformed through the loving acceptance of its dumbness. This acceptance is rooted, in turn, in the belief that, as Bud Abbot puts it somewhere about his partner, nothing and nobody’s that dumb. That the eccentric empirical is hardly the whole or even the very best of our tradition—it excludes the self-made Grand Mannerists, from Sargent through Serra—is obvious. But, like the equivalent tradition in our literature that gave us A. J. Liebling and Fisher, it is a sideshow often better than the big top . . .
writing in, “Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective”