Wednesday, January 4, 2012

American Artist Paul Thek (1933-1988)

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Paul Thek (1933-1988) Meat (from the Series "Technological Reiquaries“), 1963

“I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art.” Paul Thek

Paul Thek (1933-1988) was an American painter, sculptor, & installation artist. Born in Brooklyn, he studied at the Art Students League & the Pratt Institute, before entering Cooper Union in 1954.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965, from the series Technological Reliquaries

His multimedia works are generally anti-heroic with references to art, literature, & religion. All of his works -- painting, photography, video, sculpture, installations, & environments -- were among the central sources for the revolt of art in the 1960s. Because of this, one of the early theoretical tomes of this period, Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation (1962), was dedicated to him.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Woman with a Pearl & Ruby Necklace) 1963

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Michaelangelo 1963

While living in the East Village, Thek worked as a clerk at the New York Public Library, a waiter, & a lifeguard. After school, he moved back & forth between Miami & the Northeast, painting, designing sets, & taking various odd jobs. Among his friends & fellow students at Cooper Union were photographer Peter Hujar & painter Joe Raffaele (later Joseph Raffael).

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Meat (from the Series "Technological Reiquaries“), 1964

Thek’s nomadic existence evolved to include periods living in Amsterdam, Paris, & Rome, in addition to New York, where he kept his studio on East 3rd Street in the City. He frequently retreated to the secluded island of Ponza, off Italy; a New England monestary; & to Oakleyville, a remote section of Fire Island, New York.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Michaelangelo 1963

After returning to New York in 1959, his circle of friends included, in addition to Hujar & Raffaele, the artists Eva Hesse & Ann Wilson, the critic Gene Swenson, & the writer Susan Sontag, who became his great friend.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Meat (from the Series "Technological Reiquaries“), 1964

The relationship between Thek & Hujar developed into one of the most important in both their lives. They spent the summer of 1963 in Sicily, & visited the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo, where Hujar took unforgettable photographs, & where the rows of human remains in glass boxes had a profound impact on Thek’s work. Thek, raised as a Roman Catholic, often seemed to be doing penance in his art; early evidence of his fascination with martyrdom appears in his "Technological Reliquaries" of the mid '60s.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) (from the Series "Technological Reiquaries“), 1966

In Rome, Thek made several sculptures of Michalangelo, covering plaster breast plates in paint & wax.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (from the series "Technological Reliquaries“), 1966

Shortly after his sojourn to Rome, Thek began making his Technological Reliquaries, or “meat pieces.” He had been impressed by the fragmented plaster body parts sometimes incorporated into the work of Jasper Johns. Placed within Plexiglas boxes & hung on walls, the works were seen by most as deeply disturbing (exactly the response they were intended to solicit) & were taken by many as a comment on the cool remoteness of the geometric sculpture then on view in New York galleries (work later dubbed Minimalism).

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Meat Piece with Flies), 1965, from the series Technological Reliquaries

Thek wrote, "I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene--where the name of the game seemed to be 'how cool you can be' and 'how refined.' Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it."

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Arm 1966

Thek began showing his sculpture in New York galleries in the 1960s. The first works he exhibited, made beginning in 1964 & called “meat pieces,” resembled glistening pieces of raw flesh housed in geometric Plexiglas boxes.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Four Tube Meat Piece), 1964, from the series Technological Reliquaries

These pieces were not just a reaction against the clean, cool forms of Minimalist & Pop Art, but also against U.S. involvement in Vietnam & the carnage that resulted from that war. Thek stopped making these pieces in 1967, when he overheard himself described at an opening as the "meat man."

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Warrior's Legg 1966-7

Thek then made one of his most famous works in New York, The Tomb, which opened in a solo show at the Stable Gallery in 1967. It included a life-size effigy of the artist, which came to be known as the “Hippie,” a mannequin with a face & hands that had been cast in wax from Thek’s body with the help of the artist Neil Jenney. The figure was painted pale pink from head to toe, & wore a necklace of human hair & other jewelry made of mixed woven hair with gold. Pink goblets, a funerary bowl, & private letters surrounded the effigy; the fingers of the right hand had been amputated, placed in a pouch, & hung on a wall behind the figure’s head. The Tomb can be considered as yet another parody of minimal art.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) The Tomb or Death of a Hippie 1967

After creating The Tomb in New York in the late 60s, Thek left for Europe again, where he built extraordinary environments, drawing on religious processions, the theater as tableau, & the common experiences of everyday life, & often employing fragile & ephemeral substances, including wax, latex, sand, & tissues.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled 1968

In an interview in Artnews (April 1966), Thek commented, “The dissonance of the two surfaces, glass & wax, pleases me: one is clear & shiny & hard, the other is soft & slimy…At first the physical vulnerability of the wax necessitated the cases; now the cases have grown to need the wax. The cases are calm; their precision is like numbers, reasonable.”

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Fishman 1968

In a 1969 interview in the Dutch paper De Volkskrant he said, “In New York at that time there was such an enormous tendency toward the minimal, the non-emotional, the anti-emotional even, that I wanted to say something again about emotion, about the ugly side of things. I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art.”

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Newspaper Painting 1969

Thek used religious experience from his childhood as well as from his travels in Europe to inform his art. When Thek began making casts of his own arms, legs, & face in 1966, the sculptures that resulted were hyper-realistic representations of brutally severed sacrificial limbs enshrined in boxes like religious relics.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Installation The Dwarf Parade Table 1969 A Procession

After almost a decade in Europe, where he achieved a considerable degree of fame, Thek changed direction, moved back to New York.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Fishman in Excelsis Table, 1971-2

There he turned to the making of small, sketch-like paintings, although he continued to create environments in key international exhibitions. He never achieved the same notice in the US, as he did in Europe.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Apfel 1969

The artist began to describe his installations as “processions,” evoking ancient, religious rites in observance of seasonal change as well as incorporating moments out of everyday life, & giving a sense of the works as one continuous work in progress.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Feather Painting 1971

Thek next created another effigy of himself: Fishman, a full-body latex cast of the artist, naked & covered with fish instead of scales. The Fishman, calling to mind Jesus the Fisherman, was exhibited hanging in trees. In 1969, at an exhibition at the Stable Gallery, the artist chose to leave the gallery bare & have the work exhibited in the courtyard, suspended in a tree.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Eggplant 1974

Although he started as a painter, Thek did not make paintings (& only a handful of drawings) from 1963 to 1967. In Europe, at the end of the 60s & in the early 70s, he began to draw & paint again, using graphite, ink, & watercolor to record his surroundings, & also painting on newspaper.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Catepillar in Storm of Leaves 1975

Along with the celestial blue images of swimmers & divers, Thek’s earliest newspaper paintings are populated by pipe-smoking dwarves, a recurring motif, isolated against aggressive red or metallic silver backgrounds.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Pompeian Pepper 1975

In his “island” paintings, he merges motifs with blue washes of paint on newspaper, depicting islands in the distance formed by the tip of a dwarf’s peaked cap poking through the water.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Grapes 1974-5

Journals were highly important to Thek, & he produced more than a hundred between 1969 & 1980. Mostly written in ordinary school notebooks, they are filled with passages of self-reflection, self-doubt, & deeply personal thoughts about friends, relationships, & sex.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled Earth Drawing I 1974

Often Thek copied pages of writings by Saint Augustine, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, William Blake, & others. The journals are filled with drawings in ink & watercolors, from simple comic sketches to portraits, cityscapes, seascapes, & images of the earth, fruit, & fish.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Statue of Liberty 1975

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled Rockscape 1975

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Hammer & Sickle 1975

In 1975, at a foundry in Rome, Thek made an extensive series of sculptures out of bronze. The small sculptures depict mice, bowls of cherries, pipes, campfires, eyeglasses, lanterns, & other objects that Thek called "The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper."

Paul Thek (1933-1988), The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper and the Pied Piper's Campfire, 1975-76

Unlike the heroic works traditionally associated with bronze, these diminutive sculptures displayed a childlike quality of innocence & whimsy.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1966-67, from the series Technological Reliquaries

Thek seemed to regard the Pied Piper as a kind of alter-ego.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Tar Baby 1975-76 "The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper."

In the late 1970s, he taught at Cooper Union, & also worked for a short time bagging groceries & as a hospital janitor. Although struggling financially in these years, he wrote to a friend in 1979, “I am beginning to paint again, little canvases, very little, 9” by 12”, all different styles, all different subjects, though I think a lot of Kandinsky, of Klee, of Gustave Moreau…& of Niki de St Phalle, so you can imagine that the paintings are colorful & varied.”

Paul Thek (1933-1988) The Big Carrott 1974

In 1979, Thek wrote to a priest, "I am OK, still trying to be 'an artist' in the secular world . . . as you know, the world is the world, very 'worldly,' etc., etc."

He longed for recognition, but had little respect for commercial artistic posturing, retreating to Europe & even to New England monasteries later in life. Thek had a complicated, on-going relationship with the Roman Catholic religion throughout his life. In the 1980s, Thek began to exhibit paintings again, mostly small drawings & paintings in galleries in New York & Paris, showing his continuing creativity during his last years.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Sodom & Gomorrah with Hot Potatoes) 1972

From New York in 1972, Thek wrote,"I am now here trying to do some paintings, some real paintings, oils on canvas, but it is hard so hard to get started again, the hardest thing I've ever done....I am trying to do some paintings of NYC especially the two new World Trade Center buildings which are so very enormous ENORMOUS I call them Sodom and Gomorroah which is pretty much the way it is, NYC and US are very much changed now.”

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled Latin America) 1984

In January of 1987, Thek wrote a friend, "I am told by my doctor that it very much appears that I am developing AIDS. I do not know what this will mean... other than my hopes are not looking far into the future, at this point. I doubt that I will even have the chance to do the retrospectives, even if they finally get their plans together....But I can't help but know that I have been much weakened in my system and in my WILL by the endless disappointments and frustrations of the so-called "art" world, such silly vapid people! My spirit has been broken by all this pushing and cheating and so, I think, the virus has taken hold.”

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Indoor Window) 1983-84

Thek wrote in 1987, "I have been even more deeply bored than usual with the so-called "art" world, such silly people doing such silly wasteful things! I find it intolerable now, the world is in such problems and these 'artists' play such silly neo-dada games or worry about 'aesthetics, individuality, freedom, and newness!' It's all so sad, I long ago outgrew it personally."

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled 1975

As you know if you read this blog, I always feel that primary sources, words written or spoken by the artist, are the way to get to know an artist. For me, the most instructive view of the development of Thek’s views, beliefs, & life come from his own Cooper Union notes for his students from the late 1970s called "Teaching Notes: 4-Dimensional Design"

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled 1972

Name, age, birthdate, place of birth, position in family, nationality, religion, education, hobbies, career plans, parents education, parents birthplace, parents religion.

1- Where do you now live? With whom? For how long? What income do you have? From what source? What property do you own?

2- What are your requirements in a friend? Lover? Mate? What kind of art do you like? painting? sculpture? Music? What do you read? How often? Do you buy books? Records? What is your favourite colour? What are your politics? Have you ever been seriously ill? Serious accidents?

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Weary Wire Walker) 1980

4- Do you believe in premarital sex? What happens after death?

5- Tell us about other members in your family. Tell us about a close friend. Tell us about someone who inspires you. Tell us about the most exciting thing you ever saw, did.

6- How many rooms are there in your home? How many floors? What floor do you love on? Do you have your own room? Do you share it? With whom? What does your room look like? On what do you sleep? In what? In what position?

7- Do you take baths or showers? do you use perfumes or deodorants? What style of look do you prefer? Are you interested in sports? Which? How often?

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Uncle Tom's Cabin with Tower of Babel Series "The Personal Affects of Pied Piper" 1976

8- Do you believe in abortion? Do your parents?

9- Whats your worst physical feature? Your best? Whats the main source of difficultly between you & your parents? Teachers? Friends?

10- What annoys you the most in others? What kind of teacher do you prefer? If you where a teacher what would you propose? How would you grade your students?

11- What is eternity? What is love? What is art? What is a symbol? What is religion? What is psychology?

12- Who are your role models? Who is the person closest to you at the moment? Who is the person physically closest to you at the moment? What in your life is the greatest source of pleasure?


Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled Seascape 1970


13- How do you know you like someone? How do you know if someone is interested in you? How do you know that you are happy, sad, nervous, bored? What does this school need? This room? You? This city? This country?

14- What is an abstraction? What is a mystery religion? What would it be like if you behaved with absolute power?

15- Redesign a rainbow. Make a French-curve rainbow? Design a labyrinth dedicated to Freud, using his photo & his writings.

16- Design a Torah. Design a Monstrance.

17- Illustrate the Godhead. Add a station to the cross. Design an abstract monument to uncle Tom.

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Chrysler Building) 1983

18- What is a good temple? Who is your favourite character in the bible? Who is your favourite character in gone with the wind?

19- What is an icon? Why does an icon have to be human?

20- What is sacred profane?

21- Make a paperdoll of yourself.

22- What is theology? What is secular? Explain the Zen doctrine in your own words. What does it mean?

23- What does 'In the beginning was the word' mean

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.


Paul Thek (1933-1988) Rainbow Dwarf Blind Today, Deaf Tomorrow

24- Can you find a book on making sculptures of paper? Make a spaceship out of a cereal box. Make a paper chain out of a book.

25- Redesign the human genitals so that they might look more equal? Design an feminine crucifixion scene.

26- Design something to sell on the street corner. Design something to sell to the government. Design something to put on a altar. Design something to put over a child's bed. Design something to put over your bed when you make love. Make a monkey out of clay.

27- Design a flying saucer as if it were an ark.


Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Red Empire Building 1983

28- Make a large folded paper airplane, paint on it a slogan which you think will revolutionize your life. Make an icon out of popcorn. Paint a balloon gold, paint a baloon silver. Make a necklace out of coal.

29- Paint a series of playing balls like planets. Be accurate.

30- Design a black mass out of any materials you can find.

31- Design a work of art that fits in a mtachbox, a shoebox. Design a new clockface.

32- What is the difference between philosophy & theology?

33- Who is Hans Kung? What is liberation theology? What is mysticism?

34- Who was Meister Eckhart?


Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Water Towers 1983

35- What is the purpose of art? What does 'spiritual' mean to you?

36- What is the most difficult thing in life for you? Can art be useful in dealing with this dufficulty? In what way?

37- What is service? What is the purpose of society? of government?

38- What is the surest way to happiness?

39- Who is Savanarola? Augustine?

40- What is attractive in a woman? in a man? What are the qualities of physique most attractive?

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Mary in the Arms of Jesus 1979-80

41- What are the personality problems of being an artist? What is it like to be an American in the 20th century? What is our unique role?

42- Who is Roosevelt? What is action painting? Pop Art? The Louvre? What languages do you speak? Spoken at home? What religious articles do you have in your home? your family home? Make a skyscraper out of inappropriate materials. Make a prisoners pillbox hat. Make a scatalogical object, or use scatalogical words.

43- Illustrate your strangeness, act out your most frightening perversity.

44- Design a box within a box to illustrate selfishness. Design a throne.


Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled 1980 (Purple & Yellow)

45- Why are you here? What is a shaman? Make a piece of curative art. Make a piece of psychological art. What do you think has been the greatest hurt, mental & physical, that you have suffered?

46- What do you think are the qualities of a life fully lived. Can you suggest a project, for yourself, or for a group, or for any number, which might deepen your sensitivity to time? What is greed? What is verbal knowledge? What does tactile mean? Can you show me an example of tactile sensitivity in your personal life?

47- What do you do to make yourself more attractive sexually? Why do you do this? Do you really like very beautiful people? Do they have special priveleges? What is polygamy? Explain its function in the society.

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled

48- Make a design of your favorite literaray person. Event. History. Project for Ellis Island.

49- How much time should you work on a class project? How much time should you think about it? Discuss it?

50- What do you think of money? Make a structure explaining to me your concept of money, or out of money.

51- Should art be useful? useless? What is a pablum?


Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Lampshade) 1980

52- What is capitalism? Communism? Socialism? What is leisure?

53- Make a structure out of photos of primitive people. Make a structure illustrating anything from the book of proverbs.

54- Can you construct a functioning lamp that illustrates the concept of freedom? Can you construct a functioning ashtray that illustrates the passage of time?


Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Brick Wall II) 1983

55- What is waste? Who was Malthus? Can we humanize the city? Can we humanize Cooper? How can we redesign the Cooper Triangle? What should the student lounge look like? Where?

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Our Mother Who Art 1985

"Remember I'm going to mark you, it is my great pleasure to reward real effort, it is my great pleasure to punish stupidity, laziness & insincerity. These marks wont make much difference in your later life, but my reaction to you will, but the reaction of your classmates to what you do, will."

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (3 yellow X's) 1984

"Your classmates are your world, your future will be like this now, as you relate with your present, you will relate with your future. recognize your weakness & do something about it."

Paul Thek to his Cooper Union students.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted 1985

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled (Purple and green cell) 1984

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Rubble Egg 1986

Paul Thek (1933-1988)Untitled

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled Seascape with Rowboat 1987

In 1988, he wrote, "I did myself a great disservice by staying in Europe so long…My many years in Europe have not helped me at all. Understand that here in chauvinistic US time spent in better places is viewed as culturally suspicious, Edward Hopper is oft quoted saying ‘It took me 10 yrs to get over living in Europe!’ I'm never interested in pretty pictures for the ugly rich so I've a bit of a reputation as a ‘trouble maker.’ I hope I live up to it, but it doesn't feed what's left of my face."

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Big Bang Painting 1987

In 1983, Thek wrote to a friend, "As you may know NYC is ripe with plague now, "aids"....The gay scene here now is vastly different then what you may recall, many have died of it and sexual conduct has undergone enormous changes...It's better than The Plague! We get to go! It's better than dying alone for your own silly little reason! This way we get to go out with a real BANG!”

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled Seascape 1987

In late July, 1988, Thek returned to New York City from a monestary in Vermont, very ill, & was hospitalized. He dictated his will naming Robert Wilson the executor. Sheyla Baykal remembered Thek's wry humor as Thek described the proceedings as a "career move."

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Puddle & Dust 1987

Paul Thek died on August 10, 1988.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) While There is Time Let's Go Out & Feel Everything 1987

A memorial service, 'A celebration for Paul Thek,' was held on December 3, 1988, at St. Mark's Church In-The-Bowery in New York. Susan Sontag dedicated her book AIDS and its Metaphors (1989) to his memory.

Paul Thek (1933-1988) Dust 1988 ("Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...")

Post Script
A little more on Thek's theological thoughts...

In July 1976, he wrote, "...NYC seems more than ever totally OVER. A city that feels totally dead now, and as if it doesn't even know enough to lie down. The culture here, the late stages of pop vulgarity, is becoming really dangerous, physically, morally, etc."

And in 1978, when asked to do an exhibition in Rotterdam, Thek responded, "I MUCH PREFER THE DECEMBER DATE. As you may know I like when possible to tie in the show with a holiday period, I find the public more clearly understands my work, more clearly understands the 'liturgical' nature of the art.... Christmas is my favorite."

Back in NYC in 1973, Catholicism became a more explicit aspect of his work & daily life. He wrote, “...I am trying to work, yes it is much harder now - as I think our EGOS are dead, which is good, + now we must discover WHY we are really painting, really WHY ... We are men now, painters are priests, and WE TRY to KNOW + TO DO THE WILL OF GOD. IT IS A GLORIOUS JOB + WE ARE HONORED AND WE TRY ALWAYS HARDER + ALWAYS WE KNOW IT IS NEVER ENOUGH WHAT WE DO. There seems always LESS TIME + more + more to DO and SAY."

From a Benedictine monastery where he often retreated in Weston, Vermont, he wrote, “Here it is good for me and I spend some time praying. I think now how strange that we have spent all our lives, to now, trying to do OUR WILLS, working for us, and not doing GOD'S will. I wonder how it must feel to DO God's will? It must be a great excitement and joy. The daily praying is so necessary, how is it so FEW bother to do it?”
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2 comments:

  1. My goodness! I think my views on art shifted a dozen times while reading this piece. What an interesting person! Thanks for the introduction!

    ReplyDelete
  2. thank you very much for this beautiful review of Thek's works and thoughts! paolo

    ReplyDelete