In a letter to Franz Deckwitz, his long-term friend and collaborator, Paul Thek wrote: ‘So if I live long enough, I will be beginning to have my AMERICAN retro!’ Death came too soon for him, in 1988 at the age of 55, but 22 years later, Thek finally has his American retro, and it shares much with it subject: it is beautiful, important, frustrating and late.
Thek had an intimate relationship with beauty – his own led to Andy Warhol filming him for one of his ‘Screen Tests’ (1964–6), a work of quietly lustful devotion – and his experience of the Palermo Catacombs (which he visited with Peter Hujar in 1963) could only emphasize its fragility. The ‘Technological Reliquaries’ (1964–7) that the visit inspired possess none of the catacombs’ dry deterioration, however; rather, the often unidentifiable slabs of flesh seem to be kept if not alive then undead by the tubes and valves that protrude from them. One thinks of Robert Smithson’s noting of the ‘putrid finesse’ of these works, even as they parodied his own slick forms. And slick these works of Thek undoubtedly are, oily seepages still spilling within shiny plastic shrines – studies in camp abjection. By placing one such ‘Meat Piece’ in an upturned ‘Brillo Box’, we are reminded that within the sparkling promise of clean silkscreened form lie forms of sinewy metal, oozing pink.
In their catalogue introduction, curators Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky acknowledge that their decision not to reconstruct Thek’s large-scale installations may seem a ‘kind of curatorial “failure”’, although this would be the case only if their inclusion were indeed possible. Given Thek’s method of reusing elements from earlier installations in subsequent works, then even if these elements remained, they could only be used here once, and of course, many have been lost or destroyed. His most famous work, The Tomb – Death of a Hippie (1967), had a pink-painted wax effigy of the artist, wearing ritualistic jewellery, laid out in a ziggurat. Although the figure would be resurrected numerous times in later installations, he eventually grew irritated at his repeated interment and, after reluctantly agreeing to its installation in Cologne in 1981, Thek refused to accept it from the shippers on its return and suggested that they destroy it; the work disappeared in uncertain circumstances and we are left with Hujar’s beautiful, uncanny photographs of it in the artist’s studio.
Upon discovering that a number of the works due for inclusion in his first German exhibition in 1968 had been damaged en route, Thek created a ‘studio atmosphere’ by scattering newspaper upon the floor and closing off, with pink silk cords, the room in which the sculptures were placed. Over the following weeks, he worked upon the damaged sculptures, supplementing them with other objects, even using them within a private performance that was photographed. At the exhibition’s close, the works were displayed in a more traditional manner upon low white platforms, and this is how they appear in the Whitney, objects of contemplation rather than use. If this sense of their being relics draws inevitable connections to his earlier ‘Reliquaries’, their status is somewhat different, the vestiges of an obscure and often private ritual rather than the products of an intended fascination. If displays of artistic contagion, such as this, are increasingly familiar the effect here seems somewhat contrary to that intended: rather than emphasizing the ephemeral fragility of Thek’s practice as a whole, such displays place additional, and perhaps excessive, weight on that which remains.
Sussman, the Whitney’s curator of photography, makes a persuasive case for the medium’s importance within Thek’s practice, in its incorporation within certain sculptural works (although these were often also subsequently removed) as well as its more quotidian uses, as notes or gestures. And it did seem to perform a transformative, almost magical, role for the artist during the most important periods of his practice. The small paintings made later, upon his troubled return to New York, are modest when compared with the extraordinary tumbling sprawls of the installations that preceded them, and this is even the case in the latter’s absence. However, the concern with installation remains, in the low hanging of the works and in the provision of chairs and picture-lights, and the effect is one of individual contemplation rather than communal accumulation. Moments of tremulous beauty do occur, such as the headline ‘More Churches Quietly Forging Independent Paths’ visible in the top-left of a sheet of The New York Times, upon which Thek – who pleaded, unsuccessfully, with a Carthusian monastery over many years to be accepted as a novice – painted a Hodgkin-podge of five blue arcs, or An Erotics of Art (c.1980), his belated response to the call made by his then somewhat estranged friend, Susan Sontag, at the end of her seminal 1966 essay ‘Against Interpretation’, the collection in which it was included, of course, dedicated to the artist.
‘While there is time, let’s go out and feel everything’ reads the almost illegible child-like cursive, of one of Thek’s late paintings (1987), the sentiment hidden in the sensorial overload which it appears to summon. Even in death Thek continues to beckon us, and it remains difficult to resist: as he had written in his notebook some 12 years previously, ‘Sing Praise!’