Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, is the artist’s first U.S. retrospective at the Whitney Museum. It is an effort to bring the underappreciated frontrunner of contemporary art into our country’s awareness. The show, which runs from October 21 until January 9, showcases the many mediums in which Thek worked. Paul Thek (1933-1988) was a sculptor, a painter and an installation artist and the all-encompassing show displays his “meat” pieces, his environments, and drawings.
Brooklyn-born Thek was a force when he entered the New York art scene, creating graphically gory objects that resembled body parts with wax, called “Technological Reliquaries.” These pieces were inspired by a trip to the Capuchin catacombs in Sicily with photographer Peter Hujar in which over 8,000 corpses lined the walls in glass caskets. Bodies, meat and bone, became a way for Thek to communicate his issues with the artworld at large. On seeing the corpses, said Thek, “I felt strangely relieved and free. It delighted me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers.”
Casts of his own body, amputated arms and legs, are futuristic, ahead of their time. Casts also present as embellished, painted, and imagined bisections. They appear wet and grotesque under clinical Plexiglas, a direct ancestor to Damien Hirst’s installations. These are specimens of life, a thing so rare in 1960s geometric obsession. This was a call to bring attention back to the body and the handmade, as opposed to the silkscreened, distant pop of Andy Warhol and clean, sterilized coldness of Minimalism. His most famous piece in the series, “The Tomb”, is a wax replica of the artist, dead, and is now only available in photographs. His fake death piece, also called “Death of a Hippie” was a possible symbol of the end of the 1960s idealism. The waning of personality was evident and Thek sought to bring about some life albeit through death and transience. In a letter to a friend, Thek wrote of “The Tomb”, "I really don't want to have to do that piece AGAIN! Oh God no! Imagine having to bury yourself over and over." But thankfully, Thek’s work is well documented. A slideshow of his work in the studio by Hujar is a striking complement to the Whitney show, a lovingly detailed look into Thek’s mode of working.
Thek moved to Europe and his installation work was well-received. He used ephemera and garbage to construct environments, never meant to last. It is for that reason that his show has been a bit of a disappointment to Thek’s followers; that his more famous pieces are not present and the ones that are seem a bit cold and contrived. He never intended his pieces to be fodder for museums at least initially. When organizing the Whitney exhibit, curators respectfully opted to re-create Thek’s ideas without attempting to replicate his originals. In fact, Thek’s original exhibitions were to be viewed by candlelight, which the museum could not accommodate. His materials were temporary so the work that is still intact is the only art curators were able to put in the show. He had a change of heart later in life and began to create a more permanent series, mundane objects cast in bronze. These pieces in the show were easy to overlook given the bizarre and fascinating nature of the other work. One installation piece present is titled “Fishman in Excelsis” in which his likeness is pinned under a table which is, in turn, hanging from the ceiling. Many showgoers paused and stared up at this effigy of Thek, so lonely hanging in the air. Like the other installations, death permeates every object, a farewell to the familiar. Another sculpture has Thek’s corpse lying in the supine position, covered in fish. The correlation to Jesus is implicit. Religion plays an interesting role in Thek’s work. A closeted but known homosexual, he had complicated but deep feelings about the Catholic Church. In Europe, it is said, he would visit monasteries between dalliances with men. He went to study with the Carthusians in Vermont but reportedly his health was so bad, he was rejected because they couldn’t care for him. He died three months later.
After returning to the U.S. after nine years, Thek’s reputation was all but forgotten. He suffered from depression and had to turn to other types of general labor to supplement his lifestyle such as janitorial work and bagging groceries. Rage pervaded him, possibly due to drugs or the state of his health, and his anger seemed to have ruined any possible chance of a reemergence. His famous friends such as Susan Sontag and Peter Hujar no longer supported him or his art and he sabotaged his opportunities and other relationships.
He lived a short life, dying of AIDS-related complications at 54 years old. This retrospective is titled “The Diver.” In his sketches and paintings, Thek uses a solitary body to illustrate the very nature of being alive: alone and free in the vast expanse of whatever world we choose to occupy. This show demonstrates Thek’s message of life that although he might be dead (or just pretending to be), the world goes on without us. The artworld turned its back on or lost its memory of Paul Thek when he returned to the states, but his impression is omni-present in the contemporary world. His work is more resonant today than it could ever have been in his time even if the show fell a little short for some. Society turns to artists to show them their culture and Thek may have been too graphic, too visceral for the decades in which he was creating work. He may have been too grim. But he was cataloging his life and his own experience while other artists were escaping the realities of life through Minimalism and perhaps, some might say, safety. Being shunned by your own is another level of hell but New York has given Thek another chance to be accepted.