‘If you don’t like this book you don’t like me.’ Written in blue biro, this notebook page from 1974 is the posthumous permission that Paul Thek grants us to explore his intimate life of the mind. The Modern Institute’s galleries had the feel of the final rooms of a museum show, where one might already have moved past Thek’s ‘Technological Reliquaries’ (1964–7) or reconstructions of his installations of the 1970s and ’80s. The Thek retrospective at the Whitney in New York last year had all of these but made little more than a passing reference to the hundred or so notebooks he produced. Gallerist Toby Webster seemed to have redressed that balance by assembling some 35 notebooks and documentation from Thek’s collaborations and installations borrowed from the Watermill Center Collection and from Alexander and Bonin, New York. These were arranged in a sensitive, almost devotional, manner in ten vitrines in the lower gallery, while an iPad held three books in their entirety, around which were hung paintings and drawings. In the upper gallery were Peter Hujar’s beautiful photographs of Thek at work on his ‘dead hippy’ self portrait for his Tomb work of 1967, along with a crackly VHS mini-documentary accompanied by the artist’s signature song ‘Mr Bojangles’ (1968) in the upper space.
It was to the books, however, all numbered and named according to their binding, that one was drawn, and where two clear registers emerged: the carnal and the cosmic. We learnt that Thek was a baroque kind of Catholic who celebrated the ‘word made flesh’ aspect of that doctrine and its connection to even older rites and rituals. Through his notebooks – by drawing, musing, bitching, quoting and despairing – the artist attempted to give form to his own subjective interpretation of cosmological concerns that have dogged dogmas and eschewed rational analysis since before the ancient Greeks. He devoted himself to an exploration of sex and death, love and God, which on a pious day on the Italian Island of Ponza finds him copying out long sections from St. Augustine’s Confessions (398AD) in monastically neat ballpoint pen and employing the fourth-century saint’s antiquated language to confess his own sins: ‘I will now call to mind my past foulness and the carnal corruptions of my soul; not because I love them, but that I may love Thee, O my God’ (1972). Or, less contrite back in the Sodom and Gomorrah of New York where, ‘I go to Metropolitan Sex Movie on 14th Street, living various encounters, all except one with blacks […] I am blown twice (I don’t come)+ fucked 5 times’ (1979).
A series of correspondences was established between the vitrines and the paintings and drawings on the walls. Certain images recurred, like that of a dinosaur. For example, a kind of diplodocus emerged from a pink swamp in an untitled painting from 1985; flicking through the iPad, the same creature appears in notebook #60 (1978), with its long neck and bulging lower limbs morphed into a drooping cock and balls, oozing a few last post-coital drops. Further on, an entry reads: ‘I want to ride on the back of a dinosaur,I want to walk on the sea.’ In a vitrine was notebook #18 (1974), in which Jesus Christ – the original water-walker – is drawn round the swollen glans of another cock/dinosaur in the manner of a Russian doll. Stretching the sacred round the primal, or inserting one inside the other, is a strategy that Thek continually employed, not unlike the medieval theologians he so admired, who argued that theology and philosophy were not separate, as in the ‘Computisteria Notebook’ (1974): ‘The secularization of art and the rationalization of religion are inseparably connected, however unaware of it we may be.’
It’s clear that, for Thek, the art object is a container of a transposed theological concept, which itself is a vessel for some indefinable cosmic mystery. This is confirmed further on in the same notebook, ‘The theologian sorts and classifies – only the mystic attests to EXPERIENCE.’ In notebook #60 (1978), he parodies the theoretical and text-bound analytical approach of his minimalist contemporaries with around 30 monotonous pages of immaculately placed vertical pen strokes broken up with Thek’s own baseline comments like ‘very meaningful’ or ‘a good handling of the …’ and ‘the most important ingredient in a work of art is humour’.
Reading the notebooks, we are reminded that intimacy is what we crave and fear in equal measure. When we become intimate, we reveal ourselves to ourselves and to others alike in a manner that frees us of the myth of selfhood. The erotic is the conscious appetite of desire that provides a momentary release from the self, but it is the sacred, linking sex to the ultimate intimacy of death that provides Thek with his trajectory as he hovers between the attractions of Eros and the irresistible embrace of Thanatos.