Wayne Thiebaud’s colorful and evocative Tie Rack is a brilliant marriage of the artist’s unique blend of realism and abstraction, in which personal remembrance and latent symbolism intertwine among an array of colorful neckties. In Tie Rack, Thiebaud pays homage to his long-time dealer and friend, Allan Stone, who kept the painting in his collection until his death in 2006. It also featured prominently in the seminal retrospective of Thiebaud’s work that traveled to San Francisco, Fort Worth, Washington, D.C. and New York in 2000.
Set against a creamy white background, Thiebaud’s Tie Rack is pressed toward the picture plane, its humble display of ties simplified into basic geometric units that are aligned within a strictly ordered progression. Thiebaud delights in the formal play of light, shadow, color and texture that the ties provide, though the stark presentation of the work recalls his advertising work at The Rexall Drug Company in the 1950s. By isolating the object against a blank background, Thiebaud imparts a gleaming realism to the piece that recalls a glossy magazine ad. A painterly tour-de-force, the ties seem to glow from within by some unseen light source. The cool blue pool of shadow near the painting’s lower edge indicates an overhead light, but the brightness of the ties along the right edge appears side-lit. Thiebaud’s masterful depiction of light pervades the piece in all its mysterious beauty.
The three-tiered, wedding-cake format of Tie Rack recalls Thiebaud’s best confections of the 1960s and the thick, rich impasto of each colorful tie links it to the crucial decade in which it was created. With a truly exuberant palette, Thiebaud delights in the chromatic combinations of deep red, blues, tangerine, lime green, yellow and pink. While the abstract forms of the ties themselves may recall the color field paintings of Morris Louis, Barnett Newman or Kenneth Noland, Thiebaud’s ties sit slightly askew, so they are not made into perfect geometric planes but retain an innate sense of realism.
Thiebaud’s Tie Rack belongs to a series of paintings based on neckties that were created in collaboration with Allan Stone and were exhibited in 1969 in two one-man shows, at the Crocker Art Museum in Thiebaud’s hometown of Sacramento and in New York at the Allan Stone Gallery. Preparatory drawings from this period reveal the artist’s intense fascination with the necktie, and in fact, ties were among Thiebaud’s most important motifs. Row of Ties, from the same year, is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, and Tie Rack was selected for Allan Stone’s collection. Thiebaud had a knack for developing the potential, hidden meaning contained within a simple article of clothing, and in Tie Rack, he seems to celebrate and aggrandize the necktie, in a canvas that’s nearly six feet tall. His presentation implies a nearly infinite arrangement of ties, displayed as they are upon a spinning, round rack, tier on top of tier, as if the rainbow array of ties might stretch on forever in endless color variations and hues. In this way, Thiebaud’s ties are not unlike his rows of pies, cakes and other confections that implied the abundance of the postwar era and the aura of optimism and endless possibility that pervaded the national psyche at that time. It may also illustrate the American idea of personal redemption and reinvention that a new necktie could impart. Cheap enough to discard if deemed unworthy, each tie provided a new persona: reinvention at your fingertips.
Though it evokes a post-war America, by depicting each necktie with such regimented formality, Thiebaud may also illustrate the strictness of that era and the clearly-defined gender roles that it demanded. A rigorous austerity is conveyed in Thiebaud’s neatly-organized row of perfectly hanging ties, each one carefully arranged upon the rack, each the same length with hardly any deviation. The painting might be read as a portrait, albeit one that is characterized by the absence of its sitter rather than his or her physical presence. If that is the case, what kind of portrait does Thiebaud represent? Does it imply the repression of a buttoned-up, suit-and-tie era? Though it appears simple and straight-forward, Thiebaud’s Tie Rack—like his best paintings—like raises more questions than it does answers, and it hints at a culture that defines itself by its possessions.
The power and immediacy of Thiebaud’s best paintings often stem from his early career as an illustrator, working for the Rexall Drug Company during the 1950s. Thiebaud recognized the visual impact of commercial artists’ strategy, in their use of blank backgrounds to isolate a product and quick, decisive lines to delineate them. In Tie Rack, Thiebaud’s colorful array of ties are imbued with a hyper-real quality that is both a development from his early career in advertising but also his unique approach to outlining, which he described as “halation.” In the studio, Thiebaud was struck by the visual phenomenon that an object was not simply delineated by a simple, black line, but rather comprised of a multitude of complementary colors, which softened the contours of the object and delineated it from surrounding space. In Tie Rack, Thiebaud’s halation technique is in full effect, especially when defining the edges of the tie rack’s mirrored base, which seem to compose an entire rainbow of hues.
One of the most compelling notions embedded within Thiebaud’s Tie Rack (and indeed, most of his paintings from this period), is the sense of ritual that lies at the heart of the necktie. Indeed, the tie ceases to function unless it is actually put on and tied together, and the act of dressing is implied by its mere depiction. The presentation of the tie rack—enlarged to six feet, delicately lit and hyper-real—fetishizes the object, in the same way our culture tends to fetishize food. The objects exist in Thiebaud’s special ether—a non-space in which they are suspended for all eternity, never to be worn (and the cakes never to be eaten)—so that there is a certain timelessness that pervades each work. Critics have likened this sense of frozen time to the work of Georgio Morandi and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. This sense of stillness is all the more pertinent because it calls to mind ideas of consumption; the cakes exist in a timeless, near-perfect state because they have yet to be eaten. The ties, likewise, have yet to find a wearer. Take a bite, crumple the tie, and Thiebaud’s special magic is lost forever.
By simultaneously working in the dual modes of realism and abstraction, Thiebaud’s still-lifes exist in a special arena, where personal memories become encoded and hidden messages are implied. From a seemingly ordinary object, Thiebaud was able to tease out its laden meaning and hidden potential. He has remarked, “[My subject matter] was a genuine sort of experience that came out of my life, particularly the American world in which I was privileged to be. It just seemed to be the most genuine thing which I had done.” (Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in Steve A. Nash, “Unbalancing Acts: Wayne Thiebaud Reconsidered,” Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, New York, 2000, p. 18).