Paul Thek

New York

Warrior’s Arm, 1967, from the series Technological Reliquaries: Wax, paint, leather, metal, wood, resin, and Plexiglas. 9 ½ x 39 x 9 ½ in. (24.1 x 99.1 x 24.1 cm) Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; The Henry L. Hillman Fund, Mr. and Mrs. James H. Rich Fund, Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery Fund, A.W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund, and Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art, 2010.3 © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York Photograph by Jason MandellaWarrior’s Arm, 1967, from the series Technological Reliquaries:
Wax, paint, leather, metal, wood, resin, and Plexiglas. 9 ½ x 39 x 9 ½ in. (24.1 x 99.1 x 24.1 cm)
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; The Henry L. Hillman Fund, Mr. and Mrs. James H. Rich Fund, Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery Fund, A.W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund, and Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art, 2010.3
© The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York
Photograph by Jason Mandella

By Bill Clarke

Paul Thek
Whitney Museum of American Art
Oct. 21, 2010 - Jan. 9, 2011

Upon entering Diver, the first U.S. retrospective of American artist Paul Thek, visitors see four ‘portraits’ of the artist. The first is Andy Warhol’s 1964 silent, black-and-white ScreenTest of the artist, which shows a blond-haired, angelic-yet-serious-looking young man in a tight close-up. The second is a series of pages from one of Thek’s notebooks from around 1975; in it is the artist’s 96 Sacraments, in which he celebrates the sublime – “To touch the earth. Praise the Lord!” to the seemingly mundane – “To mail a letter. Praise the Lord!” The third portrait consists of images of Thek taken by photographer Peter Hujar in 1966 at the artist’s New York studio during the construction of the now legendary (but also now non-extant) installation The Tomb, which consisted of a life-size wax effigy of the artist (that became commonly referred to as his “dead hippie” sculpture) housed in a ziggurat-shaped structure. The signature image of the exhibition, Diver, is the fourth portrait. This work on newspaper from the late-60s pictures a lone figure – a surrogate for the artist – arched in mid-air against a bright blue sky, yet to plunge beneath the surface of the water. With just these four pieces, an image of Thek as a sensitive idealist, an isolated but keen observer of the world and a ground-breaker emerges, and these impressions are reinforced by the rest of the exhibition.

Untitled, 1966, from the series Technological Reliquaries: Wax, paint, polyester resin, nylon monofilament, wire, plaster, plywood, melamine laminate, rhodium plated bronze, and Plexiglas 14 x 15 1/16 x 7 1/2 in. (35.6 x 38.3 x 19.1 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 93.14 © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York Photograph by Geoffrey ClementsUntitled, 1966, from the series Technological Reliquaries:
Wax, paint, polyester resin, nylon monofilament, wire, plaster, plywood, melamine laminate, rhodium plated bronze, and Plexiglas 14 x 15 1/16 x 7 1/2 in. (35.6 x 38.3 x 19.1 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 93.14
© The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York
Photograph by Geoffrey Clements
Thek’s work is much like the work of his contemporary Eva Hesse in that both artists seems to have their work discussed more frequently than displayed. Like Hesse, Thek’s sculptural materials – plastics, wax, latex, rubber – are extremely fragile, making conservation and transportation tricky. Having this much of Thek’s work in one place makes this exhibition required viewing for anyone interested in the early days of Conceptual and Installation art, unique brands of which Thek pioneered throughout the 60s while the art market was more interested in Pop art.

Thek’s sculptures from the mid-60s seem to reflect the violence of the era in a way that much of the art of the period does not. It is interesting to note that his Technological Reliquaries series (1964-67), which consist of shockingly realistic sculptures of body parts and chunks of oozing meat housed in clear plastic boxes, were made while America was excalating its military involvement in the Vietnam War. They seem to be precursors to Damien Hirst’s animals suspended in tanks of formaldehyde, but are really in a world of their own. Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box (1965) from this series places a sculpture of rotting meat inside one of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box sculptures, which also hints at Thek’s position on the sterility of Pop.

In 1968, Thek was invited to Europe to mount exhibitions at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. During his residency at the Stedelijk, Thek experimented with larger-scale sculpture, and also found his way back to more traditional sculptural materials. Hanging from the ceiling in one of the larger galleries is the sublime Fishman in Excelsis Table (1970-71), which features Thek’s key motifs of this period: floating figures, and fish and water. The latter consists of a 16-section cast of the artist’s body covered with rubber casts of fish, all affixed to the underside of a standard-issue wooden table. At first, the impression is of a man drowning but, upon further consideration, the figure could be being held aloft. The piece reads as an image of death and resurrection, simultaneously, and acknowledging the religious symbolism of the piece seems unavoidable. Paul Thek: Diver: A Retrospective (2010), installation view:   Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.Paul Thek: Diver: A Retrospective (2010), installation view: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.(Later in life, Thek, who was raised Catholic, considered joining a monastery.) In another room, a selection of bronze sculptures of mice, eye glasses, smoking pipes and eating utensils from the series The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper (1973-76), illustrates a whimsical and playful side of the artist; these charming and whimsical sculptures were part of a larger project that Thek was unable to realize.

The exhibition feels a bit scant on Thek’s work from the late 70s through the 80s, but this was also a time when he was having a hard time gaining traction in the New York art world. (At the time, he expressed a belief that leaving New York for Europe at the end of the 60s had hurt his career.) This period is represented by his lukewarmly received Small Paintings from 1980 and a recreation of his final exhibition in May 1988, which consists of paintings on paper. Here, Thek returned to motifs of water, casting viewers in the role of the diver that he had first painted back in the late-60s, by hanging the works, which feature a turquoise palette, low to the floor. This makes them read like reflections in a swimming pool. Some of the paintings incorporate words like ‘dust’ or ‘butterflies’, suggesting impermanence and fragility. Thek died of AIDS-related causes at 55 three months after this final exhibition. Although he never gained the recognition that he felt he and his work deserved, this exhibition bracingly illustrates that Thek is more than an “artist’s artist”. Rather, his work has the power to resonate with everyone.

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