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Google's birthday logo, by the master slatherer Thiebaud

By Blake Gopnik

This morning, Google launched a special logo on its home page to celebrate its birthday: A pretty little picture of a cake with a candle and the word Google in icing, all drawn by pop-art master Wayne Thiebaud. The 89-year-old painter has built his long career largely on his skill with desserts. That makes his Google logo less straightforward than it seems: Coming from the hands of Thiebaud, it means something quite different than the same image would have done, had it been worked up by some hired-gun illustrator.

Wayne Thiebaud's birthday logo for Google. (Courtesy: Google)

Pop art was all about high culture riffing on mass culture. It was about transformation.
But what happens when a great pop artist such as Thiebaud actually contributes to mass culture without ever shifting into high-art gear -- when no transformation occurs? His art changes what it means.

Google approached Thiebaud to do their birthday-cake "Doodle," as they call their custom logos, because of his stature as a fine artist. The company's designers had worked with Jeff Koons and Shepard Fairey, but never with an old master such as Thiebaud. "Wayne Thiebaud is definitely the icing on the cake - pardon the pun - as far as working with guest artists. It's a definite honor," says Google Doodler Mike Dutton, who was involved in the project -- one of about 200 Google Doodles already done this year, tailored to markets all around the world.
Once Dutton's team had found the basic idea of using a cake for the birthday Doodle, which is being seen in every market, choosing Thiebaud as its artist was a bit of a no-brainer: "Why not have someone who's incredible at doing cakes, and famous for doing cakes, do it?"
Dutton says that his team had expected the busy artist to maybe give them permission to "repurpose" one of his older cake paintings into a Google Doodle. Instead, Thiebaud surprised them with a fully-rendered pastel, designed just for them. "He's been doing this for so many years, that he was bound to get it right on the first shot ... he definitely knows his cakes," says Dutton.
The funny thing is that I'm not sure even Thiebaud fanatics could have been certain, just from looking at this morning's logo, that the image was really by him. Yes, he made his name painting pictures of cakes, but that was because of the amazing way they were painted. His thickly slathered oils stood in for delicious icing, almost one-to-one, forging a magical, unlikely equivalence between them. But the trademark touch that made that magic happen disappears when the picture's seen in a tiny logo built from pixels on a computer screen.
In Thiebaud's painted cakes, the hallowed art of painting in oils was taken down a notch, and shown to involve some of the same, everyday pleasure that there is in cake decorating. At the same time the art of icing was shown off as something worthy of consideration by serious art lovers.
None of that comes through in Thiebaud's Google logo. Instead of being anything like an example of his art, it's just a kind of nod to it. Come to think of it, it's like a link that takes you somewhere else -- a pointer that leads out from cyberspace into the world of actual cakes and physical paint.
In the 24 hours that the Doodle is up -- it will be removed from the home page at midnight Eastern Time tonight -- hundreds of millions of people should have seen it. Some may follow its lead, and hunt down a slice of Thiebaud's sweetness in their local museum.

By Blake Gopnik  | September 27, 2010; 4:35 PM ET
Categories:  Blake Gopnik  | Tags:  Google birthday logo  
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I recognized Thiebaud's work immediately, because of the shadow. He's among my favorite artists, but I can take or leave the cakes. It's his landscapes that I love.

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