50 Artists: Jenifer Wofford on Wayne Thiebaud

by , January 2017

Jenifer K. Wofford was originally scheduled to deliver a 50 Artists gallery talk on Wayne Thiebaud’s Student (1968) on Friday, January 20, 2017. She recently informed SFMOMA that, given the political events of the day, she would like to share a written statement instead. The thoughts that follow are her own. Although SFMOMA neither endorses nor rejects Wofford’s views by presenting them, the museum is dedicated to serving as a platform on which many different perspectives may be put forward and discussed, making the art of our time a vital and meaningful part of public life.

In light of the J20 Art Strike, I am compelled to withdraw my presentation for SFMOMA’s 50 Artists series today. I regret that I am not giving my talk on this marvelous painting, as I had deliberately chosen to discuss it on Inauguration Day.

I’d hoped to discuss this work, in part because I genuinely adore it for its formal loveliness; its fine use of color, line, and negative space; for all of the hallmarks of Mr. Thiebaud’s trademark style. I am a lifelong fan of his work. Mr. Thiebaud, ever the gentleman, was even kind enough to answer some of my questions about the piece.

However, I also chose Student because of its unusual tension, and a certain melancholy that I see in it, that reflects the terrible conditions for women and people of color that today’s Inauguration ushers in. Here you have a young woman, presumably college-aged, waiting somewhat passively at her school desk, in an otherwise stark, uncertain environment. There is a clock on the wall, and nothing else.

Since President Franklin Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937, Inauguration Day has been held on January 20 and the term of office officially starts at noon on that date.

Look at the time on the clock.

Look at the year this painting was executed.

As a college professor who works with bright, smart, feisty young women every day, I am intensely protective of their futures and their choices and am hopeful that they will lead the kinds of changes and revolutions that arose from student-led movements in 1968. I see so much in Thiebaud’s young student’s eyes; I wish the best for her, as well as for her peers without access to higher education.

As an artist whose work often addresses issues of diversity and feminism, when asked to choose a work to talk about on Inauguration Day I was surprised how few relevant works there were by American women or artists of color on view. As much as I love Thiebaud, he was one of the only artists whose piece seemed appropriate to me for the occasion, and I noted how problematic this was. I am disappointed by the appallingly slow pace of progress towards inclusiveness in the art world. It’s the twenty-first century, in what is now the largest contemporary art museum in America, after all….

I have been a faithful visitor to SFMOMA for more than twenty-five years, and I will continue to attend exhibitions here for the rest of my life. I hope that as we push into the future together, this institution—like this country—will try far harder to reflect the needs of its diverse population, and will organize and collect with a more progressive, inclusive mindset.

Look at the time on your clock. Right now.

Look at what year it is. Right now.

Jenifer K. Wofford

Photo: courtesy the speaker

Jenifer K. Wofford

Jenifer K. Wofford is a San Francisco artist and educator whose work plays with notions of hybridity, authenticity, and global culture, often with a humorous bent. She is also one-third of the Filipina-American artist trio Mail Order Brides/M.O.B. Wofford’s projects have been presented locally at the Berkeley Art Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Minnesota Street Project, and further afield at DePaul Museum in Chicago, Silverlens in Manila, and Osage in Hong Kong. Wofford received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and her MFA from UC Berkeley.