Art: The Slice-of Cake School

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It was said of Zeuxis, the great artist of ancient Greece, that he could paint a bunch of grapes so realistically that birds would try to eat them. This was an impressive skill, but art has long since aspired to more than carbpn-copy realism.

Now a segment of the advance guard has suddenly pulled a switch. Unknown to one another, a group of painters have come to the common conclusion that the most banal and even vulgar trappings of modern civilization can, when transposed literally to convas, becomes Art.

PAINTER WAYNE THIEBAUD, 41, who teaches at the Davis campus of the University of California, paints cakes, pies, ice-cream cones, candy machines and lollipops, and he portrays them so lushly that the viewer's mouth is bound to water. Last week, as his first Manhattan show closed at the Allan Stone Gallery, there was ample evidence that he had a number of connoisseurs drooling as sympathetically over the slice-of-cake school of art as literary critics once took to the slice-of-life. Among those who snapped up Thiebaud's canvases: Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum. Collector James Thrall Soby, Architect Philip Johnson.

Thiebaud, like any traditional painter became interested in how light affected objects, particulary the garnish glare of bulbs and florescent tubes that made objects seem to swell with importance. When be drove across the country, he noticed soemthing else; the repetition of "the still life of the restaurant table" — the same salt and pepper shakers and napkin holders in dining rooms and roadside stands everywhere. Finally, after a trip to Mexico he found that what struck him most vividly on re-entering the U.S. was the gaudy luxury of the drugstore and hamburger stands. And so he began painting food, "Meringue is a beautiful substance," he says, "but there also is a connection with the quality of the paint, the luscious, fatty richness of oil paint and the greasiness of meats and buttery frostings. This is a still-life area we have a tendency to take for granted."

ROY LICHTENSTEIN, 38, of Highland Park, N.J., started his fine-arts career painting semi-abstract versions of Remington's cowboys and Indians, and later began to conceal comic-strip cartoon characters inside abstract-expressionist paintings. "This led me to wonder what it would be like if I made a cartoon that looked like a cartoon." In addition to cartoons-on-canvas, he began painting household objects—trash cans, washing machines, light cords—in the same flat technique. "I try to use what is a cliche —a powerful cliché—and put it into organized form," he says. By presenting common things, familiar to commercial art, in a different context, Lichtenstein, a onetime window-dresser, argues that he is creating something new. "It brings up the question 'What is art?' " says he.

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