Tie Pile, 1969 reveals something about the essence of American identity and Wayne Thiebaud's unique brand of realism that embodies the national character. In an essay titled "Plato at the Dairy Queen", the art scholar David Anfam insightfully declared, "From the Puritan's arrival at Plymouth Rock in 1620 to the present, American culture has alternated dreams of individual freedom with oppressive conformity and standardization." (Exh. Cat. London and New York, Faggionato Fine Art & Paul Thiebaud Gallery, Wayne Thiebaud, 2009, p. 5). Tie Pile succinctly encapsulates the subtle truths that Anfam suggests lie below the surface of Thiebaud's deceptively lucid still-lifes. Tie Pile is situated at the crux of the opposing poles of freedom and conformity that is endemic to the ideal of the 'American Dream.' As such, this work is an essential element in understanding the role of subject matter in Thiebaud's oeuvre and was widely exhibited in 1976 and 1985 in two of the most important retrospectives of Thiebaud's work, organized by the Phoenix Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art respectively.
Thiebaud's painting also reflects the wit and humor of both its creator and of its collector, Allan Stone. In one of the many letters from `Wayne' to `Allan' – this one dated Oct. 14, 1969, the painter sketched the compositions for five recently completed still-lifes as candidates for an upcoming 1970 exhibition at the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery in his hometown of Sacramento. Two drawings represent his traditional composed rows of ties or ties on a hook, both exhibiting his predilection for patterned order. The final sketch is a jumble of ties with the painter's caption to his dealer, "your ties." In fact, the Allan Stone Gallery label affixed to this painting cites the title as "Allan Stone's Ties" although it has been exhibited as Tie Pile.
In Tie Pile, the objects are no longer displayed in the rectilinear arrangement of the store window display. These ties have already been purchased and are ready to realize their potential role in the life of the consumer. But there is also something comical about their arrangement, suggestive of Thiebaud's interest in cartoons and his high school employment at the Walt Disney animation studios. Tie Pile suggests that in addition to material goods, humor is an essential part of the American experience. Specifically, Thiebaud chose his subject matter to reflect "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." (As quoted in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum, California Legion of Honor, Wayne Thiebaud: a Paintings Retrospective, 2000, p. 18). This core of experiential integrity accounts for the sense of nostalgia that permeates the artist's work and, in the case of Tie Pile, also allows Thiebaud to tackle the difficult task of representing humor via a manipulation of the mundane.
Tie Pile is also an intricate exploration of abstraction, which - perceived in total - reveals an exacting depiction of its subject. This paradox has led Thiebaud's work to be described by Donald Kuspit as, "Ironically realistic, all the more so because of their impasto surface – ironically expressionistic – which gives his objects and scenes an uncanny density and presence, suggesting that they are subjectively abstract as well as objectively perceived, that is, invented and discovered at once." (Exh Cat. London, Faggionato Fine Art, Wayne Thiebaud: Paintings, 2004, p. 7). Similarly, Tie Pile can be understood as "a dialectic of clutter and neatness." (Ibid., p. 9). This fluency in melding ideas and techniques that are seemingly opposed to one another is a tool that Thiebaud has sharpened to ensure that realism continues to hold a meaningful place in the art of the 20th century and beyond.
Rather than naming the painting simply 'Ties,' Thiebaud chose a title reflective of the human action enacted upon the object. As a result, Tie Pile encapsulates the aftermath of perhaps a hurried morning before work and what remains is a caricature without the man. We know who this man is by what he leaves behind. The gentleman who wears these ties may own a soda shop or work as a bank clerk – or be a collector with an appetite for art and life that set his daily routine at a fast pace.
Tie Pile is representative of Thiebaud's paintings that sketch a portrait of the work-a-day American by isolating the objects of daily life. His paintings represent a yellow dress or an array of freshly used cosmetics as a testament to the American woman and her accoutrements. Ties and well-worn black lace-up shoes are painted to fit the American man. Thiebaud's interest in his subject matter is not without historical significance. Vincent van Gogh famously investigated the imprint that people leave behind on their possessions when he painted A Pair of Shoes, 1886. To a scholar of the history of painting like Thiebaud, Van Gogh's work is no doubt familiar. Numerous famous commentaries, most notably by Martin Heidegger in his 1935 The Origin of the Work of Art, have been written about this painting. Van Gogh's shoes may appear more thoroughly worn than those painted by Thiebaud in Black Shoes from 1963, but the two artists essentially work through the same challenge of representation. They both represent the experience of wearing the shoes, through painting only the shoes themselves. In essence, these works are portraits defined by the absence of the person rather than his or her physical presence. Translated into an American idiom, this aspect is subtle in Thiebaud's work; his ties, cosmetics and shoes may appear to inquire if we as Americans define ourselves by our possessions, or if it is our possessions that will outlast and define us. In Tie Pile, Thiebaud as always provides an ambivalent response to this quandary since he feels that social agenda have no place in discussions of art, but his paintings ensure that a record of his experience and his time will be documented in history.
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