In 1962, Paul Thek boarded a container ship and took his first trip to Europe, where in the following decade he made a series of significant, eclectic, and often-unpreserved sculptures and installations. His arrival via cargo ship – one imagines a freighter piled with coloured crates – seems somewhat prescient. After all, Thek has come to be known for placing flesh-like objects within varying types of encasement: take his iconic self-interment in a pink ziggurat; the luminous series of wax meat slabs in Plexiglas, Technological Reliquaries (1964–66); or the monastic trope of self-containment that recurs in his work and biography.
The exhibition Why?! placed eleven career-spanning sculptures and watercolours by Thek – including three from Technological Reliquaries – alongside Luc Tuymans’s pieces from the past three decades. Tuymans, who helped curate the show, reportedly got the idea at the exhibition The Reality of the Lowest Rank (2011) in Bruges, where he showed his own works with several of Thek’s and began to notice thematic ties.
Here the ties are more like stray lines. Economic and political crises turn up in Thek’s Untitled (Sodom & Gomorrha with Hot Potatoes) (1970–71), which mixes farcical gravity (‘hot potatoes’) with dripping paint under a New York skyline to make a cartoonish jab at the city’s decline towards near-bankruptcy. Tuymans draws his crises from the past, like the painted photographs of World War II soldiers in Album (2012). Religious iconography in Tuymans’s haunting clerical icon München (2012) seems to follow the Catholic idiom in Thek’s dirty-formalist reliquaries and his personal theology. Die Wiedergutmachung (1989) – Tuymans’s watercolour of a Manila folder and two partly filled-in grids – borrows the German word for ‘reparation’ or ‘redemption’, that is, rectification effected through historical intervention. That very word might serve as a header for this exhibition’s mix
of difficult religious and historical themes, as well as Tuymans’s attempt at re-visioning iconic works by Thek.
Why?! – with its hybrid interrogation and affirmation ‘?!’ – is taken from Marco Ferreri’s film Bye Bye Monkey (1978), found as a still on the exhibition’s invitation card: Marcello Mastroianni sits upright in bed, a speech bubble containing the adverb pointing to the empty pillow beside him. An allegory of pained pairing and fraught intimacy? Some of Tuymans’s pieces depict awkward gestures of coupling, like the two silhouetted figures in The Conversation (1989) – one hand outstretched – or the dual human-like blobs in the new Underground Freak Out (2012). In Ferreri’s film, Mastroianni and Gérard Depardieu find a baby chimp on a shore taking refuge inside a monstrous King Kong costume. This mixture of grotesqueness and naiveté – killed Kong and cute monkey, pop culture and personal myth – is echoed in Thek’s Cosmic Duck (1968—69), where a blue plaster mass is lodged into the back of a ceramic mallard duck, like nature smacked by the extraterrestrial. The uncertain flesh tones in Tuymans’s painting Body (1990) are at once tender and eerie – by now a kind of Tuymans trademark.
The Whitney Museum’s Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective (2011) was a long-awaited institutional seal on Thek’s oeuvre and served to repatriate the artist into a coterie of American art-historical figures. There was a slight revisionism at play: Thek first gained recognition in Europe before returning to New York, where he found his achievements mostly ignored. The continental flavour of many of these pieces – Old World religion, postwar scrappiness, the mystical state of mind – make a case for the hold Europe had on Thek. The mangled headlines on the fringes of newspaper that fountain out from a chunk of leg-like concrete in Untitled (1970) are not in English, but in thick German Fraktur.
Tuymans sees the strength in Thek’s contradictory impulses: both naive and coolly definitive. It’s what the late Mike Kelley had in mind when he wrote that the most disturbing element in Thek was his ‘low and dirty language’ coexisting with a ‘contrary prettiness.’ Here, that contrary prettiness might well come from Tuymans.