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Public Roads - Summer 1996

Artists Look At Roads

by Richard F. Weingroff

Because roads, streets, highways, boulevards, and freeways are an inescapable part of our life, they understandably are part of our art. In the foreground or the background, they anchor our art to reality, serve as symbols, or twist and turn in ways never dreamed by an engineer.

John Weidenhamer, for example, began including roads in all of his paintings following a private showing of his work in St. Louis, Mo., in 1969. Along with his other work, he exhibited a few road pictures, every one of which sold.

In a 1989 profile of the artist, Southwest Art described his work:

Though the landscape may change, John Weidenhamer's paintings always have "it" in common - namely, a road, whether it be a tire-marked sandy pathway snaking through boulders or an asphalted two-lane strip that carves up endless expanses of pasture.

Asked why he puts such a mundane subject - roads - in all his paintings, Weidenhamer responded, "Roads are what America is all about. Our history as an economic and social power is due in part to the incredible road system that ties the coasts of this country together and allows commerce and social exchange to take place, even in the most remote areas. Mobility and the automobile are a large part of it. If we had to travel to the Grand Canyon on horseback, how many of us would ever get there?" "No matter what your destination, the roadway is really what you see during most of your trip," he added as a practical matter.

His paintings are free of cars, crowds of people, and the bustle of traffic. He may leave the road signs, but he removes the litter. A collector once asked Weidenhamer where he found roads of such peace in America. Weidenhamer told Southwest Art, "[The collector] is a busy developer and doesn't have time to travel. If he did, he'd realize that there are endless places of peace along the back roads if we just take time to look for them."

Other artists, unlike Weidenhamer, like to paint the freeways that, in many ways, intersect with our lives and symbolize the urban sensibility of our age.

Detroit artist Lowell Boileau has painted a series of paintings of his city's freeway network: The Fisher Freeway bridge arches over the Rouge River. Westbound traffic on the Ford Freeway nears the Goodyear sign. Rush hour on the Lodge Freeway. Bumper-to-bumper traffic southbound on the Chrysler Freeway. One painting, called "Lunch Break," shows construction workers at lunch on a freeway ramp connecting the Reuther to the Chrysler and displays the towering I-696 overpass. These are part of more than 20 paintings of expressways done by Boileau.

"I like expressways ... they have particular lines, smooth curving lines - like giant sculptures. ... They make human movement a kind of flow of electrons. There's that aesthetic thing of design that also points out social ironies ... escape to the suburbs, a conduit, flying in and flying out," said Boileau in a profile published in the Detroit Freeway Press in 1986.

But perhaps the best known painter of freeways is Wayne Thiebaud, who is known for his paintings of everyday objects - candy machines, ice cream cones, bowls of soup, a desk set. One of his paintings is called "Five Hammers," another, "Pies, Pies, Pies." They depict, literally, five hammers and several pies.

Although the paintings have a pop sensibility, Thiebaud responds, "I see myself as a traditional painter. I'm very much interested in the concept of realism and the notion of inquiry into what the tradition of realism is all about."

In 1973, Thiebaud purchased a home on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Not far from his front door, across Utah Street and a concrete wall, is U.S. Route 101. U.S. 101 was the inspiration for a number of the works. Soon, he began painting the railroads, bridges, piers, and warehouses he could see from the hill and then the city beyond his view.

"I was fascinated by those plunging streets," he said.

His drawing "Toward 280" (1978) and his painting "Freeway Exit" (1975) are early examples. "Toward 280," a view of the elevated I-280 freeway, has been described as showing "the city's maze-like topography and the dynamic thrusts and counterthrusts of its streets, buildings, and freeways."


"Freeways" (1978) by Wayne Thiebaud

In other paintings, Thiebaud has taken a closer look at the automobiles, freeways, and commuter traffic of the city. Examples are "Freeway Exit" (1975), "Freeways" (1978), "Urban Freeways" (1979-80), "San Francisco Freeway" (1980-81), and "Freeway Traffic" (1983). Thiebaud based the paintings on observation and memory but rearranged the elements to fit the pattern of his vision. Although freeways are as real as any object in our lives, Thiebaud's freeways combine elements of the representationa l and the caricature. A recent study prepared in conjunction with a traveling exhibit of Thiebaud's work described "Urban Freeways":

In this painting, Thiebaud presents an abstracted concept of freeways, those labyrinthine entanglements of cement for which California is famous. Although the painting incorporates numerous representational elements - buildings, cars, trees, smokestacks - they are subordinated to the baroque maze of shapes that snake, curl, and cut across the canvas. The painting is a caricature of the notion of "freeway" rendered in an exaggerated composition of arabesques.

Unlike Weidenhamer, Thiebaud is not seeking "peace along the back roads." He fills his urban streets and freeways with their normal traffic of cars, trucks, and buses - except that the city streets are sometimes so steep that they appear more suitable for an amusement park than an urban road network. And the vehicles often appear to be overwhelmed in a city of giant intersecting freeways and hills too steep to traverse. The recent study described the vehicles in his urban landscapes as "tiny and bug-like, tentatively and uncomfortably poised on steep hillside streets."

As with Weidenhamer, the question about Thiebaud's freeway paintings is whether the subject is really suitable for "art." Thiebaud dismisses the issue. He deliberately chooses the everyday objects of our life for his subjects.

"I'm interested in the dignity of the thing, the object, so long as it has some sort of genuiness," he told an interviewer. "When my students worry about what to paint, I tell them what [the novelist] James Joyce said - that any object deeply contemplated may represent a window on the universe. There's really only one study, and that is how things relate and interrelate."


1. Barnaby Conrad. "Wayne Thiebaud," Horizon, January/February 1986.

2. Carol Lea Clark. "John Weidenhamer," Southwest Art, August 1989.

3. Peter Gavrilovich. "Expressway Painter Puts Art in the Fast Lane," Detroit Free Press, March 24, 1986.
4. Karen Tsujimoto. Wayne Thiebaud, published for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, University of Washington Press, 1985.

Richard F. Weingroff is an information liaison specialist in FHWA's Office of the Associate Administrator