Arranged in bright rows, the neckties in Wayne Thiebaud's Tie Rack are transformed into a rhythmic composition that brilliantly marries realism and abstraction. Painted in 1969, it demonstrates the aesthetic vigor that Thiebaud could derive from a seemingly prosaic object, having spent much of the decade exploring the potential of carefully structured and brightly hued still-lifes. Attuned to the abstract beauty of the striated polychrome forms of the neckties, Thiebaud's composition exemplifies the process he praised, whereby a painter "can enliven a construct of paint by doing any number of manipulations and additions to what he sees both abstract and real simultaneously" (M. Strand, ed., Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1983, 192).
Thiebaud chose to paint Tie Rack on a monumental scale; at six feet high, grandly celebrates an object not often heroicized in this way. The necktie is an omnipresent element of men's sartorial appearance, allowing the wearer to express his uniqueness against the suit's homogeneous silhouette. Thiebaud exploits each tie's individuality as the bright hues jostle with one another for dominance. Yet he also takes delight in their serial arrangement, the rhythms created by the vertical bands stacked side by side and on top of one another. The way the ties sit slightly askew, not in rigidly geometric order, shows how Thiebaud responds to reality, not just abstract ideals.
Ties were one of Thiebaud's favored motifs in his still life paintings, and he explored variations on the subject such as a serpentine pile of ties and rows of brightly stacked bowties. Arraying the neckties on a tie rack formed by three graduated tiers, Thiebaud creates a cascade of vivid color. The tie rack's shape suggests a wedding cake, recalling Thiebaud's celebrated canvases of cakes and other sweets. Yet the tie rack is also an emblem of consumer culture, as such dazzling displays are calculated to spark desire in the viewer. Set against a plain white background, the composition recalls Thiebaud's experience in advertising in the 1940s. Thiebaud understood the visual impact of commercial artists' treatment of their subjects, such as using blank backgrounds to isolate the products and quick, decisive lines to delineate them. Where others might be quick to belittle certain works for easy commercial appeal, Thiebaud refuses to partake in such criticism; as he explained, "I had too much respect for commercial artists. I appreciated how skilled they really are" (W. Thiebaud as quoted in A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 19).
The paint colors that Thiebaud chose for Tie Rack evince a true chromatic daring -- hues such as searing orange, cerulean blue, cool burgundy and bright pink create unexpected color harmonies. In applying the paint to the canvas in smooth planes of color, he emphasized the physical character of the flat ties. Thiebaud's treatment of the tie rack's base exhibits another approach to color that is audacious in yet another way, effectively suggesting the base's metallic gleam through surprising combinations of pure pigment. He followed the curves of the base with contrasting warm and cool tones in an impasto that enhances its sense of tactility.
Through both his inventive manipulation of color and ingenious handling of paint, Thiebaud's composition rivals the best of abstract art. He had in fact spent time with some of the leaders of abstraction when he frequented the Cedar Bar in New York in the mid-1950s. There, he became acquainted with the Abstract Expressionists and their techniques, admiring painters such as Willem de Kooning, with whom he became good friends. Yet he held fast to his dedication to exploring formal innovations through realist subjects, declaring in 1968 that "I think we have barely touched upon the real capacity of what realistic painting can do" (ibid., 11).
Thiebaud, in turn, was praised by abstract exponents such as Barnett Newman, who admired his inventive transformation of common objects. For example, Thiebaud recalled, "Barnett Newman, I remember talking about the gumball machine. He says, 'Those European surrealists are boys compared to what you can do with a gumball machine. That's a real surreal object in you'" (W. Thiebaud, interview with S. Larsen, Archives of American Art, May 17, 2001). Thiebaud's emphasis on the verticality of the neckties in Tie Rack can be seen as a down-to-earth realist counterpart to Newman's metaphysical zips. An even closer abstract relative to Thiebaud's ties is Kenneth Noland's series of Chevron paintings from the early 1960s. Transforming the hard-edged abstraction of Noland into a thoughtful painting of a quotidian accessory, Thiebaud emphasizes the ties' characteristic chevron shape by accenting out its sharp contour with a touch of impasto paint in contrasting colors.