On ViewThe Whitney Museum of Art
October 21, 2010 – January 9, 2011
Paul Thek was an avant-god practicing his own religion—complete with apostles (the Artist’s Co-op) and prophecies; much of his work was comprised of self-deprecating, grotesque icons crackling with a spiritual aura, funny, disturbing, and at times bizarre. A true pioneer of installation art, he dodged many of the isms that defined his era (1933–1988) and came up with his own style.
His gospel was revelation-beatitude, performed live in and around his own installations furnished with ephemeral, process-art objects. Thek inexorably brought his dream-state to the gallery floor, just as Robert Wilson did on stage, in pieces with long, poetic titles like “A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress: Objects to Theoretically Wear, Carry, Pull or Wave.”
A native of Brooklyn, George Joseph Thek (his art-name, Paul, came from the photographer Peter Hujar, who was Thek’s lover from 1956 until Hujar’s death from AIDS in 1987, and whose obsessive documentation helped rescue Thek from anonymity) studied at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute in the early 1950s, and at Cooper Union during a period of revival in American art, absorbing the influential work of Jasper Johns, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Lucas Samaras, among others.
The title of this long-overdue retrospective, Paul Thek: Diver (curated by Elizabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky), refers to paintings that Thek made in 1969–70 on the island of Ponza, off the coast of Southern Italy, possibly inspired by the painting on the underside of the cover slab from the Tomb of the Diver (470 BCE), unearthed in Paestum in 1968.
“Diver” also serves as a metaphor for the artist’s plunge into the unknowable dream that is present in all of Thek’s art.
According to Anne Wilson, Thek’s life-long collaborator and friend, writing in “Beatitudes: Remembering Paul Thek,” Paul “believed in the soul...the images he created were to be experienced less as metaphors than as icons and as prophecies.”
Each of his assemblages, as they seemed to me at the time I first encountered them, was a moral allegory of his life as well as an expression of a personal existential surrealism, not to mention neo-narcissism (he often used casts of his own body in his art).
A hippie with Christ-like looks, a modern Bosch in the East Village who deeply disliked the institutionalization of the art world, Thek created his own “Individual Mythology” (also the term used by curator Harald Szeemann for the section of Documenta 5 in which Thek participated), at times appropriating from those he thought of as his peers—meat shoes via René Magritte (“Buzzard,” 1968); twin helix towers of Babel via Vladimir Tatlin; incongruent objects displayed in vitrines via Joseph Beuys; a Brillo Box (with meat) via Andy Warhol.
He shared affinities with the minimalists and the Arte Povera movement, and he dove into the depths of LSD and the psychedelic subculture, beyond pop or kitsch. He painted on newspapers, creating second-generation collages, with relevant sections visible only on the margins.
Thek touched many artists. Warhol placed him among the 13 most beautiful men from his screen tests. Shortly afterward, Thek acquired one of the Andy’s Brillo Boxes, removed its bottom and stuffed it with his own beeswax pre-Damian Hirst meat-piece sculpture, creating a new collaborative blend.
His work invites us into underwater temples/submarines, or maybe just a jump in to a wise man’s pool. Thek often asked galleries to hang his blue paintings waist-high so that the viewers would feel like they were swimming in a pool.
Some of Thek’s work is lost, by circumstance or sometimes by the artist’s own hand. What was sarcastically titled “Death of a Hippie” by critics, Thek’s latex self-portrait lying in grotesque repose, made the cover of the Village Voice in September, 1967. Thek took it many times on the road, but declined to take it out of customs after one overseas trip, for reasons unknown, and the original was lost.
In his article, “Paul Thek: The Man Who Couldn’t Get Up” (Frieze, 1995), critic Stuart Morgan is blunt: “There are artists who grit their teeth, plot their strategy, make their work, and become successful. And there are artists like Paul Thek. Fugitive, unworldly, Thek collaborated with others for much of his life and died in 1988 a disillusioned man.”
Two theatrical poles influenced Thek’s “philosophy of convenience”: Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and the theater of panic of Fernando Arrabal. Absurdism faces off against memory, chance, confusion, and the imagination. Thek’s art contains each of those elements, plus the use of ritual in his installations, in the surrealist and “baroque” aspects of faux-pagan-theatrical processions.
Although Thek died depressed, medically neglected, critically abandoned, and under the strain of severe poverty, his ascetic/messianic approach to life and art was a true new religion of pain and pleasure, which revealed spirit, and reconciled art and religion.
“I seem to teeter on the brink of enlightenment…and alienation from everything,” Thek once said, as recalled by Ann Wilson in the exhibition’s catalog. Paul the art saint, riding a bike with his ear painted red in Amsterdam; the blue puddles painter of Ponza; the Loisaida Duchamp whose admirers were crowding his loneliness: “I don’t want people to be involved in my dream world,” Thek mused, “nor do I want to be involved in it myself.”