Cakes & Pop Art

Let them eat cake! Or, how desert help define American Pop Art.

Wayne Thiebaud’s Cakes is one of my favorite pieces at the National Gallery East in D.C. First and foremost, because I love cake. And also, because of the great color, composition and clean aesthetics of the piece. And also, because, cake.

Thiebaud lays the paint on thick, like a heavy layer of buttercream frosting. The pale pinks, greens and blues bring to mind linoleum floors and brightly colored leather booths at a classic 50s diner. The blurred brush strokes could easily be from an imagined glass counter casing. Cakes proves that realism isn’t the only way to successfully evoke an object. The simplistic shapes, texture and color manage to transport viewers without a photographic image.

In 1962, Thiebaud was featured in an exhibition called New Painting of Common Artists organized by Walter Hopps. New Painting of Common Objects is to American Pop Art as the Salon des Refuses was to Impressionism. Basically, a seminal gathering of the biggest artists in one of the history’s greatest avant garde movements. Bold face names include Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. They of the Campbell Soup Cans and Ben-dot fame.


Thiebaud’s inclusion in the exhibition cemented his reputation as a pop artist. The movement elevated objects of mass consumption or popular culture to the realm of fine art. Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein espoused the the idea that everyday, banal objects around us can say illustrate important aspects of society. This continues a trend in art since the start of “modernism” in the 1800s. Art used to be confined to grand historical scenes, monarchs, and vases of dying flowers. But, artists increasingly turned to lives of ordinary people as inspiration. And, by the 1960s many artists were eschewing ordinary and people altogether. Things got abstract and the things themselves took center stage.

To this day Thiebaud’s various series on sweets and nostalgic items, done in the style of Cakes, remain his most recognized works. His impact on the Pop Art movement is unquestioned. Thiebaud’s exploration of mass consumer culture likely influenced Lichtenstein and Warhol. But, where his famous colleagues preferred to a more ironic tone, Thiebaud’s depiction takes on a more earnest, sentimental attitude.

Despite Cakes‘ sugary sweet appeal, Thiebaud is said to prefer lemon meringue pie to a slice of cake. Here, we will have to respectfully agree to disagree.

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