On ViewThe Whitney Museum of Art
October 21, 2010 – January 9, 2011
Paul Thek’s anxieties are baffling by contemporary standards. Today’s artists record and broadcast their work ad nauseam. They post pics, clips, and audio files online, approaching documentation not as a secondary activity, as Beuys did when he first commissioned photographs of his performances, but as a central concern on par with the creative act itself. Events are now directed as much to future YouTube viewers as to live audiences. The arts community easily divides its efforts between the business of creating and the business of immortalizing itself. But now the Whitney’s much-discussed Diver confronts us with someone struggling to balance these activities, torn between his stated allegiance to the moment and his longing to be recognized and remembered.
On one hand, Thek made a point of working with ephemeral materials like newspaper, wax, unfired clay, and vegetation, building delicate, site-specific installations that he abused and neglected until little remained but the taxidermied birds and severed fingers now on display. Yet, on the other hand, he built the airtight Plexiglas sculptures we see here, reliquaries where his body parts are displayed like sacred objects. He tirelessly recorded his daily experiences in dozens of notebooks. He blanched when museums refused to permanently store his unwieldy sculptures. How could he manage these opposing desires? We find a clue in the “diver” series, paintings created by Thek during his self-imposed exile from New York. Everything written about these images describes the titular diver as submerged in a sea representing the vast, unexplored external world. But, looking closely, we see that his ample genitalia hang down as if pulled by gravity, that his skin tones are reflected below him, as if on the water’s surface. The image captures not the moment of immersion, but the moment just before penetration. It explores the anxiety of suspension between the fleeting present and the unknowable future—an anxiety that Thek processed through his constant creative production.
Paul Thek: Diver highlights Thek’s internal contradictions. The journals on display take a humble, live-in-the-moment attitude, in which the artist admonishes himself to breeze past frustration and expectations: “You never get the answer in the recitation of the problem. Go on to the next thing.” An untitled series of haphazard constructions from 1971 seems to embody this attitude. Brightly painted with childish abandon, these un-monumental pieces depict lush, pre-historic landscapes that the artist apparently imagined himself inhabiting—several tempera paintings include posterior views of long, snaking necks, as if rendered while riding a brontosaurus’s back. Where Thek embraces this amateur, homegrown aesthetic, he communicates a disdain for commodity and mass culture, valuing the creative moment over future reception. But other works fix their gaze on the distant future. Much has already been said about the infamous “Tomb” (1967), where Thek painstakingly created a double of himself in hippie garb and ensconced it in a grand burial pyramid. Meanwhile, “Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box” (1965) borrows the established success of Pop Art to elevate Thek’s work into public awareness—here we find one of the artist’s notorious waxen meat pieces, a slab of perishable flesh preserved in the sterile but perennially chic confines of an iconic Warhol. With these pieces, Thek both reveals and cruelly mocks his trivial hippie lust for life, as well as his half-embarrassed hopes for acceptance into the art-historical canon.
Ultimately, the retrospective leaves us wondering which half of Thek succeeded. With so few fragments of his work remaining, we may perforce discuss his achievement in terms of the many younger artists he inspired. Robert Gober, whose work is on display a few floors up, certainly borrows Thek’s Wagnerian “total artwork” aesthetic in his installations, uniting sacred and profane, mysterious and ordinary, doubling or tripling the human body and confronting the viewer as Thek did.
But few attain the engaging messiness of Thek’s conflicted personality. He did have what artist Mike Kelley called a “truly embarrassing” side—for one performance, Thek placed a glowing Earth globe in a makeshift nest and handed it to a child, and his innumerable awkward sketches include images of glowing hearts casting light upon the world. But his unpretentious, undisciplined approach also made him capable of brilliant leaps. He did not simply juxtapose appropriated images; he made them new by weaving them into the fabric of his own “individual mythologies.” Kitsch, Nietzsche, art history, Catholicism, and personal experience blend seamlessly in his arrangements. Diver arrives in time to redirect the public’s understanding of these works after years of silence, with a catalog that offers a range of academic, intimate, and professional perspectives on his life. The current art community has much to learn from Thek’s concerns—but only if we confront them on a visceral level, without tiptoeing around their less palatable aspects. Those who approach the exhibition prepared for confusion and a little ugliness will fare well. Those uncomfortable with discussing turds, lawn gnomes, and orgies will exhaust themselves inventing euphemisms.