The frosting upon Wayne Thiebaud’s 1963 painting, Cakes, is so thickly applied that I am often tempted to reach out, run my finger along one of the perfect cake-tops to taste the sugary dessert. Thiebaud cleverly uses a thick application of paint to mimic the look and texture of frosting, highlighting the idea of ‘object transference’ where the paint literally assumes the appearance of the element it is depicting. His work from the 60s focused on mass culture was characterised by heavy, colourful pigment and solid outlines placed upon stark backgrounds. The balanced and symmetric arrangement of the cakes suggests a counter display at a patisserie and invites the viewer to visually consume the sweet confections.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963
oil on canvas, 152.4 x 182.9 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

In her Thiebauds series, American artist Sharon Core recreated and photographed Thiebaud’s sugary sweet Pop Art paintings from the early 1960s. The photographs, concerned with memory and repetition give a material form to the painted confections. Core inverted the typical pattern of painting from photographs by composing a photograph from a painting. Ironically, Thiebaud allegedly composed his paintings from photographs which in turn, make Core’s art a series of photographs from paintings from photographs – reinforcing the themes of repetition. The frosting carefully applied to the cakes by Core to appear as brushstrokes upon a canvas mimics the paint Thiebaud applied to look like frosting, once again engaging the idea of ‘object transference’. Issues of artifice arise with the convolution between paint and frosting, food and fabrication found in the dialogue between the painting and the photograph.

Sharon Core, Cakes, 2004, C-print, 152.4 x 187.7 cm

Thiebaud’s ‘Cakes’ can be easily recreated at home using a basic cupcake and icing recipe that is easily adaptable to produce the variety of desserts found in the painting. A bit of patience as well as a piping bag and food colouring are needed.

{Basic Cupcake Recipe}

makes 24 cupcakes

2 ¾ c flour
240 g butter, softened
2 c granulated sugar
4 eggs
1 c milk
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until the butter becomes light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each new addition.

In a smaller bowl, sift the flour and set aside. Begin incorporating the flour and milk, 1/3 at a time, alternating the wet and dry. Mix well between each new addition and add the vanilla at the end with the milk.

Line a 12-cup muffin tray with cupcake papers and spoon in ½ of the mixture. Slip into the oven for 20-25 minutes. Check the doneness of the cupcakes by inserting a toothpick into the centre of a cake, if it slides out clean, the cupcakes are done.

Cupcake Variations:

LEMON: Add 2 TB lemon juice and 1 tsp lemon zest to the basic recipe
CHOCOLATE: Substitute ¾ c flour for ¾ c cocoa powder in the basic recipe
MOCHA: Add 2 TB instant espresso powder, 1 TB cocoa powder and omit ¼ c flour from the basic recipe.
PISTACHIO: Substitute ½ c flour for ½ c ground pistachios in the basic recipe.
PUMPKIN: Add 1/3 c baked & pureed pumpkin, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ginger and 1 tsp nutmeg to the basic recipe. Omit the vanilla.

{Icing Frosting}

4 c icing sugar
1 package cream cheese

Begin mixing the icing sugar and the cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer. Add the milk, 1 TB at a time, until the desired consistency is reached.

Click here for a recipe for chocolate frosting.