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 Paul Thek  (1933 - 1988)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: mixed media conceptual work, abstract painting

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Ad Code: 3
Paul Thek
from Auction House Records.
Untitled (Meat Cable)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following review, by Holland Cotter, is from The New York Times, October 21, 2010

Paul Thek, the subject of a ragged, moving and much-anticipated retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was only 54 when he died of AIDS in 1988.  But by then he had already slipped through the cracks of art history.  Or rather he had fallen into one of the deep trenches that divide that history into artificial islands with names like Pop and Minimalism.

Thek came to art with so much going for him — talent, looks, energy and imaginative peculiarity — that for a decade or so he was an island unto himself, an archipelago even.  In the early 1960s, when everyone else in New York was into hands-off fabrication and Benday dots, he was modeling hyper-realistic images of meat, raw and bleeding, from beeswax.  Gross and funny, they had people buzzing.

Then in 1967 Thek abruptly left for Europe and radically changed his art.  Instead of sculpture, he created immense, collaborative, ephemeral environments from throwaway stuff: newspapers, candles, flowers, onions, eggs, sand.  When their time was up, these works went into the rubbish bin.  Thek, with his long blond hair and pied-piper charm, was a big success in Europe.  Museums threw open their doors.  He stayed for nine years.

In 1976 he returned to New York and had a nasty shock.  Almost no one here remembered the work he had done in the 1960s, or knew what he had been up to in Europe in the years since, or cared about what he was doing in the present.  He had been away too long. The ’60s were over.

He had a few Manhattan gallery shows and a museum solo in Philadelphia, but people stayed away.  Depressed and angry, he painted quick, small pictures in his East Village walk-up, smoked a lot of pot, cruised local parks and kept an obsessively confessional diary.  To support himself, he bagged groceries in a supermarket, washed hospital floors.  Europe was far, far away; 1980s New York, with its bottomless cash and gated art world, far too close.

His memorial service at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery was a fair gauge of his stature. The church wasn’t packed, but the eulogists — Robert Wilson, Susan Sontag — were stars. Sontag, an old friend, had dedicated her breakthrough book, Against Interpretation, to Thek in 1966.  In 1989 she would dedicate another, AIDS and Its Metaphors, to his memory.

Since his death Thek’s reputation, always high in Europe, has grown in the United States.  In the 1990s, a time of identity politics and AIDS, there were Thek shows, articles, books.  In the early 2000s, with young artists interested in the quirky and the personal in art, his influence was strong and was acknowledged by older figures like Robert Gober and Mike Kelley.

Now, finally, if with slightly behind-the-beat timing, comes “Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective,” at the Whitney.  What do we find?  Less than hoped for, perhaps, but more than anticipated: solid concentrations of the early sculptures and the later paintings; mere scraps of the great environments that came between.  Do they add up to a career survey?  With the help of documentary photographs, an accessible catalog, and an application of Thek’s own definition of faith — “Believing is seeing” — they do.

The beginnings of that career were ordinary. The artist was born George Joseph Thek — the Paul came later — to a middle-class Brooklyn family of German and Irish descent.  His parents were Roman Catholic; the first art he saw was in churches. His connection to religion remained deep, and deeply conflicted.

He studied painting at Cooper Union in the 1950s and at that time met Sontag, Eva Hesse and the photographer Peter Hujar.  Thek was alert to the new art and artists around him:  Jasper Johns, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg; later Joseph Beuys and Arte Povera.  He readily spoke of their impact on him.

His made a momentous first trip to Europe in 1962.  He cried in front of van Goghs in Amsterdam, stood drop-jawed before Michelangelo in Rome.  The major event, though, came when he and Hujar, traveling as lovers, stumbled on Capuchin catacombs in Sicily: caves packed with corpses encased in glass coffins and propped against walls.  Hujar took photographs; Thek got ideas for a new kind of art.

What resulted were the sculptures of meat and amputated limbs, which Thek sealed into sleek Formica and plexiglass containers, and in one instance into an Andy Warhol Brillo box turned on its side.  Collectively called “Technological Reliquaries,” they were clearly sendups of Minimalism’s industrial machismo and Pop’s complicit consumerism — though at a time when a brutal war was building in Southeast Asia, they also hinted at larger politics.

The culminating work from this period, The Tomb — Death of a Hippie, became Thek’s most famous, and infamous, piece: it consisted of a full-size cast of his body laid out as if dead, surrounded by sacramental bowls and possible drug paraphernalia, inside a pink wooden pyramid.  Readings of the image have been endless: it’s a symbol of the putrefying ideals of the 1960s; it’s a narcissistic joke.  Whatever its meaning, the piece now exists only in photographs.


Biography from Whitney Museum of American Art:
Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective is the first retrospective in the United States devoted to the legendary American artist Paul Thek (1933-1988).  A sculptor, painter, and one of the first artists to create environments or installations, Thek came to recognition showing his sculpture in New York galleries in the 1960s.  The first works exhibited, which he began making in 1964 and called “meat pieces” as they were meant to resemble flesh, were encased in Plexiglas boxes that recall Minimal sculptures.

At the end of the sixties, Thek left for Europe, where he created extraordinary environments, incorporating elements from art, literature, theater, and religion, often employing fragile and ephemeral substances, including wax and latex. 

After a decade, at the end of the seventies, Thek changed direction, moved back to New York, and turned to the making of small, sketch-like paintings on canvas, although he continued to create environments in key international exhibitions.  With his frequent use of highly perishable materials, Thek accepted the ephemeral nature of his art works—and was aware, as writer Gary Indiana has noted, of “a sense of our own transience and that of everything around us.” With loans of work never before seen in the US, this exhibition is intended to introduce Thek to a broader American audience.

"Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective" is co-organized by Elisabeth Sussman, Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Lynn Zelevansky, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

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