Painted in 1969, Row Ties is a vibrantly colored, delightful painting that exemplifies Thiebaud's extraordinary ability to transform everyday prosaic objects into altogether heraldic icons. In Row Ties a relic of a bygone era--the humble necktie--is imbued with provocative associations. Within the regimented abstraction of the work's three-part structure, Thiebaud's exquisite paint handling is celebrated. He marvels in color combinations that are so exuberant and splashy, a certain joy and reverie pervades the piece. Thiebaud provides each necktie with its own, idiosyncratic design, rendered in delicate, yet assured brushstrokes, some so thin they seem to defy possibility. His colors are a delight--tangerine, cerulean, lime green--and call to mind the work of Matisse and the Fauves, in their happy marriage of contrasting hues. Placed against a white background, which is key to his mature style, Thiebaud delights in the inherent flatness of the tie itself (a pictorial pun that echoes the flatness of the picture plane), so that the design reads as an abstract schematic reminiscent of Mondrian or Malevich. But Thiebaud insists on the tie's three-dimensionality; hanging from a horizontal rack, as in a shop-window, each tie casts its own blueish shadow and seems to pop forth from the confines of the painted structure. Thiebaud creates a delicate choreography then--a push and pull between figuration and abstraction--that elevates the humble necktie into something greater than just the sum of its parts.
By the time Row Ties was painted in 1969, Thiebaud had been working for nearly a decade in his unique style. His paintings of cakes, pies, gumball machines, lollipops and the like have become some of the most enduring images of that period, linked as they were to the overabundance of consumer goods in postwar America. Row Ties belongs to a series of other tie paintings that were specifically created in collaboration with his dealer and longtime friend, Allan Stone, in New York. 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, Tie Pile and Tie Tray remained in Allan Stone's collection until only recently.
Like his paintings of cakes or pies, in Row Ties, Thiebaud maintains the hyper-real gloss and sheen that derived in part from the trumped-up renderings of magazine and newspaper ads. For Thiebaud, who had worked designing logos for the Rexall Drug Company in the 1950s, this involved sihouetting the image against a white background and delineating its edge in bright, unexpected hues. In Row Ties, each tie is outlined in thin zips of alternating color: tangerine and lime on a black tie, blue to provide an outline for a brown tie.Thiebaud understood the significance that a simple article of clothing could convey when rendered "writ large" upon a simple white background, and there is hardly an object more synonymous with the ideal of postwar masculinity than the necktie. In an era that dictated that a suit and tie be worn to the office, Thiebaud presciently understood the high charged nature of the tie, and the concepts of desire, success and wealth all contained within. Contemporary ads toted the notion that "the clothes make the man," so that the personal selection of a tie conveyed not only the wearer's capability for success, but also his sex appeal and virility.
In the 1968 catalogue of Thiebaud's work at the Pasadena Art Museum, the Artforum critic and Pop Art champion John Coplans wrote, "The belief that specific traits of any man's personality are inevitably betrayed by his choice of items of adornment, is extended to the notion that pieces of clothing worn over a period of time become shaped to the wearer's body, and though orignally mass-produced, come to assume qualities of the wearers' identity" (J. Coplans, "Waybe Thiebaud: An Interview," Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Pasadena Art Museum, 1968, p. 14). In this way, Thiebaud's ties become so utterly linked to their implied wearer that they take on relic-like significance. Like the cakes and pies and hot dogs that harken back to Thiebaud's childhood memories of picnics and family dinners, the Row Ties might recall dear old Dad, and the complex memories evoked therein.
In Row Ties, Thiebaud depicts not only a single tie, but an entire array that continues on ad infinitum past the painting's edge. Along the left and right-hand registers, Thiebaud shows only half of the neckitie, a subtle painterly ploy that indicates more ties just outside the frame. Like his rows of cakes and pies, these rows of ties not only point to the over-abundance of the postwar era, but also the endless possibility that pervaded the national psyche of America at that time. Thiebaud's Row Ties, then, hints at something greater: the American idea of personal redemption and reinvention. They invite the viewer to choose from a myriad selection, a new personality and new possibility available in every new tie. Cheap enough to discard if deemed unworthy, the necktie allowed for reinvention at your finger tips, and in your closet. Like a perfect slice of lemon meringue pie, a perfect necktie embodies a certain expendable personal pleasure; the tie needs to be consumed just as much as the cake longs to be eaten.