“Dive” Into the Work of an Unsung Art Legend

Paul Thek’s First Retrospective on Display at the Whitney


Published: December 09, 2010

In 1966, Paul Thek’s close friend author Susan Sontag dedicated her essay “Against Interpretation” to the artist. In the essay, Sontag posits that art began as a type of magic, a vehicle for spiritual transcendence that over time became swallowed and debased by intellectual theory and interpretation. While the essay was written at the beginning of Thek’s career, its message can be used as a guide to understanding the many practices of a man who defied classification.

“Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective,” now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is the first major exhibition in the United States to survey a large body of Thek’s work. A Brooklyn native, Thek was a sculptor, painter and most uniquely an artist who created sprawling installations. His themes were countless and covered art, literature, religion, death and life itself. He saw what he perceived as the failure of art in the cool detachment of the reigning pop and minimalist movements of the time and reacted by creating intensely personal work about feelings and the body.

The exhibition is long overdue, considering the incredible amount of influence that Thek has had on the state of art making for the past 15 odd years (see: Damien Hirst’s vitrined shark). But it is difficult to condemn any museum or gallery for its lack of work by Thek, simply because his physical work rarely exists. Obsessed with themes of life and death, Thek embraced the ephemeral and allowed his creations to be subject to decay at the same level of all other living entities. According to the artist, “I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art.”

Co-curators Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky had the difficult task of figuring out just how to create a complete and honest survey of an artist whose work relied on its transience. The show chronicles Thek’s early years as a sculptor, briefly touches on his move towards site-specific installations and largely covers his later years as a painter.

The visitor is greeted with a full selection of Thek’s early “meat pieces” which he eventually labeled “Technological Reliquaries.” The objects are both funny and disturbing, comprised of meticulously carved and painted wax made to resemble life-sized chunks of decaying flesh encased in plexiglas containers. The vitrines take their form directly from minimalist structures, heavily laying a critique on the suffocating intellectualism involved with the popular movement. Thek’s self-obsession shows itself early as the pieces within the glass are made from casts of the artist’s body.

The culmination of all the “meat pieces” resulted in an installation of what many consider to be Thek’s masterwork, “The Tomb, or Death of a Hippie,” in which the artist casted a life-sized effigy of himself housed inside a giant walk-in, pink ziggurat. Following the seminal “Tomb,” the artist fled to Europe to create expansive museum installations comprised of free associative objects and images which dealt with themes of religion and the human body. The works were widely acclaimed for their radical nature by critics and viewers alike. However, they only exist now in fragmentary relics and photo documentation. Thek took pleasure in the ephemerality of his creations and most of the work was thrown out after its run at the museum or gallery in which it was displayed.

While these installations are the most well known of Thek’s art, they are wisely left out of the exhibition largely out of respect for the artist’s intentions. The theatrical tableaus concern themselves with the spirituality and confusion of daily life and as such were meant to be fleeting moments, veiled in mystery. Scenes of lost installations such as the “Tomb” are shown on large video projections scattered throughout the exhibition. The surviving pieces that are shown in the exhibit such as “Untitled – Dwarf Parade Table” seem lost and helplessly decontextualized unless viewed through a nostalgic lens.

After his time in Europe, Thek moved back to New York to find that all of his previous fame had been forgotten. Frustrated by the demands of the art world, Thek returned to the creation of objects and began making paintings, an ample amount of which are present in the Whitney show. The title of the exhibition, “Diver,” refers to the paintings that Thek completed while residing on the isle of Ponza off the coast of southern Italy. The diver can serve as a metaphor for the artist submerging himself into the unknown, the sea a fluid bank of memories. The paintings, mostly done on old newspapers are cheap and modest, but show the artist in his final stages of life valiantly attempting to record his cosmic ideas. Motifs like the earth viewed from the moon appear during this time and let the viewer into the gentle nature of the classically rogue artist.

While teaching a class at the Cooper Union in the late 1970s, Thek gave his students an assignment in which he posed the questions “What is eternity? What is love? What is art? What is a symbol? What is religion? What is psychology?” Daunting, seemingly unanswerable questions for an artist, Thek devoted his entire life to these themes, trying to find the truth through deep introspection. The assignment was probably not meant to check the cleverness or intelligence of his students but rather was a plea for answers in aid of his heroic quest.