In a handwritten note from September 1979 Paul Thek recorded a ‘List of the Most Important Things in My Life: 1. My Painting. 2. Susan, Monza, Lily, Annie.’ The list is certainly short, but whether it gives an accurate insight into the priorities governing the artist’s life and work is unclear. The social context represented by Susan, Monza, Lily and Annie played an extraordinarily productive role in Thek’s early work, becoming increasingly important in his life in the late 1970s. Painting, on the other hand, came to dominate his work of the 1980s. According to Stuart Morgan, Thek’s painting was an expression of a ‘dedication to the naive, as a means of making art as well as leading one’s life’. In both respects this dedication bears the mark of failure. ‘Time for myself is wasted time’, Thek writes in the same note. The painting that was so important in his last decade still divides opinion.
This recent show included a selection of works painted between 1980 and 1988. Largely detached from Thek’s overall oeuvre and the established patterns of interpretation, the exhibition offered the opportunity for a concentrated appraisal because the show limited itself exclusively to Thek’s later paintings. Looked at today, the most striking thing about them is their astonishing freshness and vitality, especially bearing in mind the version of events sold to us by both the art market and the art historians about the painters of the 1980s: Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl and David Salle; the Germans Markus Lüpertz, Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer; and members of the now nearly forgotten Italian Transavanguardia of Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia. At no time did Thek gain access to this pantheon.
Monumental pathos and Postmodern allegories were not his style, and he also had little interest in the seemingly inexhaustible font of historical eclecticism.
Thek’s paintings celebrate the unheroic – in terms of both technique and motif. His strategy of starting from the centre of the canvas and adding elements in series lend his late works a light and unpretentious air. He employed letters and shapes as ciphers of equal value, driving them beyond the limits of the often coloured frames. In Small Big Bang Painting (1987) onomatopoeic characters fill the picture to bursting point, while in Untitled (Bunnies and Ovals) (c.1984), mint-green rabbits follow a collection of marks that have oriented themselves north-eastwards like iron filings in a magnetic field. Untitled (Purple and Green), from the same period, centres on a cocoon-like figure whose thickly applied surroundings appear both protective and hostile. And Thek’s Purple Fish (1984) swims through a jolly aquarium of spots, apparently bleeding from its mouth and gills.
The deeper meaning revealed by this technique could be called naive, although one could say that Thek worked through his choice of motifs to a far greater extent than many of his contemporaries. In this sense his ciphers pay tribute to an everyday life that was meant to come across as no less everyday in his paintings than in his earlier installations and environments. Whether his motives were mythological, religious or personal, Thek accommodated them as ‘means of making art as well as leading one’s life’. Two years before he died, he painted the word ‘compassion’ in childish handwriting on a banner and let it fly against a spotted sky (Compassion, 1987). However unhappy the latter part of Thek’s life may have been, his late work was unique for its time.