Paul Thek believed in a soul. More essentially to his particular pain, he believed in its transience. Part of the brutality and genuine emotion of Thek’s work was that the soul’s peril, its ability to lose a handle on itself, was often more palpable for Thek than soul’s ability to transcend its condition. There are glimpses, premonitions, flourishes, passing brushes of air that tempt hope, but Thek’s soul (his animus, his central compelling force) most often appears as something under attack, something fragile and buffeted by the forces of Thek’s age, the wages of mortality, and the contradictions of his own heart.
While on one hand, his soul seemed to take losses through the popular art around him, namely Pop and Minimalism, more critically his soul was divided against itself, lost in its own contradictions. He may have truly lived, this Paul Thek, but he certainly suffered. That is the lesson of his soul and his exhibit. There are few causes to rejoice during a viewing of it, not because it is bad (actually, aspects are quite arresting) but because it is a mirror for a troubled spirit, a beautiful and wispy lost boy. It is hard to look at, and letting it inside is even more painful.
In explaining myself, in getting into the details of those last loaded paragraphs, it is best to start with the beautiful boy. That’s where the exhibition starts. Thek is fetishized, both for his outsider status (apparently he was in the right crowds but didn’t want to play) and his appearance. In recent exhibitions, for instance, of other marginalized but important figures like Lynda Benglis or Dan Graham, for instance, there was no need to flood viewers with their visage, but that is exactly what we get with Thek. Peter Hujar’s documentation is very present. The first art we encounter is not Thek, but Warhol focused on Thek, his beautiful blond hair not yet long, full of wonder and dewily beautiful. The exhibition flyers have Thek on Fire Island strumming a guitar offering the camera a crushing glare, bent and vulnerable, as if the shack around him was about to fall around him while he plays one last ballad to his lover. Thek’s image is so pervasive, I began to suspect that it might actually be the curatorial point (very sad, I think).
Paul Thek, Warrior's Arm, 1967. From the series Technological Reliquaries. Wax, paint, leather, metal, wood, resin, and Plexiglas. 9 x 39 x 9 in. (24.1 x 99.1 x 24.1 cm)Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; The Henry L. Hillman Fund, Mr. and Mrs. James H. Rich Fund, Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery Fund, A.W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund, and Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art, 2010.3. © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photograph by Jason Mandella.
These images seem both important and slightly misleading, tempting one to do what we shouldn’t with an artist, to romanticize them for things we think we know about them rather than things that are real and firm. The Thek exhibit is full of all sorts of traps of this nature, and one is inclined to wonder whether Thek’s beauty, his fundamental gift of body and face, partially led to the bombardment of that soul he believed in. It certainly won him some advantages, advantages that he mostly spurned from most accounts, but his face lingering above the exhibition definitely threatens to misplace the seriousness of his work, a work decidedly below the surface, so firm in its belief in an inner reality of the soul as to make something like a beautiful face nothing more than a mask, a false signifier.
Pop doesn’t know. Pop enlarges, projects, assumes, and eats. No wonder one of the earliest, most heartening of Thek gestures is tipping a Warhol Brillo Box and stuffing it with a wax effigy of rotting meat (not included at the Hammer). It is an angry, resistant act (much of Thek’s work has at least one foot in either anger, frustration, or confusion and sometimes all three), perhaps aimed at Pop’s original sin—its reliance on surface, its avoidance of what’s hidden, that it lives in the shallow end of the pool. Most hatefully, Pop turns spirit into something cheap.
Paul Thek (1933–1988), Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965, from the seriesTechnological Reliquaries. Wax, painted wood, and Plexiglas, 14 × 17 × 17 in. (35.6 × 43.2 × 43.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art; purchased with funds contributed by the Daniel W. Dietrich Foundation, 1990 © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York
If the soul is buried, if it is deep, then Thek was under attack from forces like Pop. Thek, the “Diver,” was fighting like hell to avoid a monumental loss, the loss of depth to surface. You’ll find not one clean, processed, or tight image in Thek’s work. How could he? Those images were an enemy.
Then, there is the issue of Minimalism, also very present in the show. I am not convinced Thek interpreted Minimalism correctly, but he believed that it too brought monumental losses in the Humanistic war for the survival of the old soul. I got the impression at the Hammer, for instance, that Thek may have thought of something like industrialism or even corporate culture when thinking of the reductive art of his time (he may even have conflated Pop with Minimalism, seeing one as a function of the other). It was the corporation, the glass pyramids of the capitalist global shredder that seemed to oppress Thek. I can’t help but think the corporate, for instance, may be a cause for his thoughts of Egypt—kings on the backs of slaves, great achievements built on the imposed squalor of lesser mortals. Is it the corporate that locks a rotting, pulsing corpse inside clean lines and fabricated levity? While someone like Judd or Flavin thought they were trying to ground the idea of the human in something straightforward, practical, and potentially beautiful, Thek seemed to see a number of cube and ruler-wielding, theory-driven, Joshuas surrounding the crumbling wall of his romantic, spiritual, and mystical self.
So naturally, I don’t agree with Christopher Knight’s assessment: “So the sculptures don't make a reactionary case for ‘interior authenticity’ as a missing ingredient in new and supposedly soulless '60s art. Instead they embody the fraudulence of the concept of essential spirit, however much it's extolled in popular conceptions of art.” In my mind, any person with even the remote desire (not to mention to ability to apply several times in an earnestness attempt) to join a contemplative monastery has to believe in the concept of essential spirit. Thek, its true, expressed a hope that monks would eventually leave their cells and join the world as preachers, but that does not nullify what I think was his true belief in his own interior integrity and status as bearer of some sort of spirit. That perceived integrity made him an odd man out, a bitter pill, the type of artist that is respected by artists but not understood by collectors.
However, the art of Thek’s time, those items and ideas floating around the galleries of New York and Europe of Thek’s age, can easily be overstated in their importance, as they so often are in the stories of artist’s lives and in the fraudulence and hyperbole of art historical writing. It was not Warhol and Judd who were oppressing Thek. It was Thek, the fishman tethered and caught in a tree like the maidens with the golden hair in Segantini paintings. There was something fundamentally philosophically strapped and burdened in Thek and this something is way past art into something deeper, into the Catholicism of his upbringing, a Catholicism that he wanted to embrace.
Why, for instance, do his childlike and somewhat naïve paintings threaten to float away, barely clinging to high art at all, as if jotted in the notebook over a creative, suffering child? Susan lecturing on Neitzsche, 1987, holds none of the authority of the lecture, none of the didacticism of Sontag—it is a painting perhaps by someone too tired to listen or even more probable, someone that knew Susan’s flaws too well to see her lecture for anything more than earnestness, as human effort playing against a obscure and turbulent backdrop. One writer put it really well in thinking the painting was “I’m still here and ready to reconcile letter” to Sontag, a note in paint.
Paul Thek (1933–1988), Susan Lecturing on Neitzsche, 1987. Synthetic polymer on canvas board, 13 × 16 15/16 in. (33 × 43 cm). Watermill Center Collection © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York.
The most poignant painting for me occurs in the Hammer’s final gallery, a quickly sketched jail cell, bars bent and occupant presumably released into the sky. A fantasy, a wish, a gesture towards the divine, this painting finds a complement in the work of Robert Gober, a practice with much of the same troubles as Thek’s work. Both artists find transcendence caught up in the physical, a bodily and mortal state encumbering the spirit or soul. Mixed with morality, this can lead to guilt. Mixed with science, it can lead to doubt. However, this fact is painfully present in Thek’s work. The fact that the spirit-matter split matters, that is something still worthy of facing, is something I find in Thek. The Word becoming flesh becoming spirit becoming flesh, the mystery of a Catholic union between the human and divine, seems a dream worth having to Thek, even if it is a dream difficult to believe in.
Top Image: Paul Thek, Untitled (Diver), 1969-1970, Synthetic polymer and gesso on newspaper. Overall: 22 1/4 x 33 3/16in. (56.5 x 84.3 cm). Collection of Gail and Tony Ganz.