“Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted” is written in yellow cursive in Paul Thek's painting of the same name, a chiasmus formally echoed by the phrase's uncertain relation to the purple surrounding it, in which neither color decidedly emerges as foreground. The picture thus reveals in miniature one of the most consistently used and yet least visible structures at play in a body of work marked by contrasts: the cross.
For an artist as obsessed with Catholicism as Thek, after all, the cross in its religious sense is conspicuous by its absence. Aside from Pink Cross with Green Buds, 1979-80, its only appearance is in a photograph of an obscure performance entitled The Procession/Easter in a Pear Tree, that took place in an remote corner of the Dutch countryside in 1969. The image shows Thek shouldering a full-size cross like Christ on His way to Calvary, smiling broadly.
Paul Thek (1933–1988), Pink Cross with Green Buds,1979–80. Oil, pastel, and crayon on canvas board with artist’s frame and picture light, 12 × 16 in. (30.5 × 40.6 cm). Collection of Carolyn Alexander © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photograph by Bill Orcutt.
The grin is key—the gesture parodies the heroic identification it might otherwise suggest. Here, as in its abstract use as a means of ordering contrasts and playful inversions, Thek's cross functions not as an armature for the eternal redemption of Christ's suffering, but for the everyday redemption of humor. Yet no other element of Thek's work has been as consistently overlooked.
To this end, Peter Hujar's previously unpublished, full-color photographs of the wax doppelganger at the heart of Thek's most famous work, The Tomb, 1967, are one of the exhibition's major revelations. Seen from head-on, the figure's stuck-out tongue betrays a mocking insouciance out of step with Robert Pincus-Witten's description of the organ as dark and plagued, in a review of the piece's debut that previously served as one of the only available accounts of its original appearance.
This lighter reading illuminates the comic intentions of the work, as a satire of the immortality supposedly offered to artists through the objects they create. Thek himself expanded on this dimension through his recycling of the effigy in his 1972 installation Ark, Pyramid. Packed in a shipping crate, the “Hippie” is surrounded by tulip and onion bulbs, foreshadowing its own fate as an object of decoration and consumption.
Paul Thek. Ark, Pyramid, Easter. 1973. Installation Views, Museum of Art, Lucerne, Switzerland.
Of course, as everyone knows, Thek's own negligence would eventually, and mercifully, spare his creation that fate, and in a manner consistent with the attrition that's left only scant physical remnants of his installations of the late sixties and early seventies untouched. Since these are the cornerstone of the artist's reputation, the question of how a retrospective can hope to succeed without them has dogged Diver since its conception.
The problem is made especially acute by the fact that Thek's paintings account for the bulk of what has survived. Generally employing some combination of kitschy subject matter, a deliberately tacky palette, and affected naïveté, these works, whether on newspaper or canvas, do very little to shield themselves from the charge of insufferable preciousness. At his best, however, Thek draws on his felicity as an installation artist to lend his paintings resonances that richly reward a closer look.
This is the case with Thek's last show, which has been faithfully recreated in the exhibition's final room and constitutes its highlight. A series of predominantly turquoise, low-hung paintings encircles the space, punctuated by a bronze Tar Baby, 1975-76, in one corner and a set of two bland cityscapes on a wall, hung with picture lights in front of a child-sized chair.
The latter works, which can hardly hold interest for anyone physically unable to fit in the seat, are especially off-putting, and seem designed to reinforce the skepticism that one might take toward the paintings that apparently reveal Thek, who was by this time only months away from his death as a result of complications of AIDS, reflecting on his mortality.
Representative of these is a painting on newspaper called The Face of God, 1988, which features its title scrawled underneath a crudely drawn clock striking eleven. At first blush, the work seems overstated, especially when compared to Felix Gonzalez-Torres's contemporaneous and subtler use of clocks as a metaphor for mortality in “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1991, where the gradual desynchronization of two clocks set to the same time stands for the impending death of the artist's lover, also from complications due to AIDS.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Perfect Lovers). 1991. Clocks, paint on wall. overall 14 x 28 x 2 3/4" (35.6 x 71.2 x 7 cm). Gift of the Dannheisser Foundation. © 2006 The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery.
Yet the painting demands to be seen in the context of its installation. Thek described the effect created by hanging the turquoise canvases—whose palette already chlorinates the blue with which he represented the ocean's boundlessness in works such as Untitled (Diver), 1969-70—so low to the ground as to resemble a swimming pool. If we take him at his word, the fact that the paintings barely reach mid-thigh takes on a sudden significance: we're in shallow waters, ironically deflating his own overt attempts at depth.
What I find so poignant in Thek's last show is exactly this admission that knowing the imminence of his death has failed to engender profundity. In making it, Thek conveys the shock of the beginning of the AIDS crisis, in all its suddenness and atrocity, with an acuity matched to my mind only by the writings of David Wojnarowicz. But where Wojnarowicz used his rage at being abandoned by society to render his words indelible, the singular value of Thek's accomplishment lies in the fact that he achieved his most affecting work by adhering, in the most trying circumstances imaginable, to the imperative scrawled mantra across pages of his notebook: “I shall have a sense of humor at all possible times.”
Top Image: Peter Hujar (1934–1987), Thek Studio Shoot Tomb Effigy From Above 5, 1967. Color slide. © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.