L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Sometimes, an artist strikes a chord with his contemporaries, and affection for him ripples through culture more distinctly and effusively than anything he’s actually made. Paul Thek was that kind of artist, perhaps better suited to being a muse than to having one. Homages began coming his way before he’d cleared thirty-five and, lucky for us, this means countless, compelling bits of him course through the arts and ideas left over from recent decades.
Even before you enter Paul Thek: Diver, the artist’s first-ever museum retrospective, you’ll see a photograph of Thek, blond, big-eyed, wearing a wife beater, surrounded by the eccentric trappings of his trade. Taken by Thek’s then-lover, photographer Peter Hujar, the image radiates deeply shared admiration—born George, Thek took the name “Paul” so that he and Hujar could move through the world as the ecclesiastical “Peter and Paul.” Then, in the foyer before the first main gallery, you’ll see a screen test of Thek, even younger, with short hair that made him more boyish and less willowy then he later became, excerpted from Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Beautiful Boys. Though the show makes no explicit reference to Thek homages by Mike Kelley, David Wojnarowiz or virtuoso critic Susan Sontag, by the time you’ve wandered through, you’ll have a sense of what charmed them. Everything he made, whether memorable in itself or not, felt drenched in a moment, even though Thek routinely rejected the minimalism and pop sleekness that dominated his era.
Paul Thek: Diver arrived at The Hammer Museum via The Whitney late in May, the love-worn project of Whitney curators Elisabeth Sussman and Sondra Gilman and Lynn Zelevansky of the Carnegie Museum. The exhibition includes two decades of work: gory but still-vibrant flesh sculptures (“meat pieces”), wax effigies, whimsical installations and notoriously “bad” paintings. Its layout, roughly chronological, follows the nomadic artist to his various international destinations. There are rooms dedicated to his early life in New York, his time at a foundry in Italy, time in Paris and Scandinavia, and, finally, his return to NYC. Each phase is particular, though all throughout, stories of loss or near-loss accompany his sometimes exquisite, frequently haphazard objects.
Thek was expelled from a Rome foundry when it went bankrupt in the late 70s, and he lost a portion of The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, small, seemingly charred bronze sculptures of items that could have populated a campsite. Dwarf Parade Table, a long dining table held up by dwarfs he learned to make from a craftsman of garden statuary, was installed as part of documenta 5 in Lucerne. Three years later, a curator from the Kunstmuseum Luzern asked for permission “to drop all wooden material” from Thek’s work—the museum just couldn’t store it any more. The parade table survived in whole, others not.
In the early 80s, when Thek was back in the states for good, he received a call that a piece he’d made in 1967, The Tomb, had been sent back from Europe, where it had been on exhibit. A wax cast of himself, dead with two psychedelic plates on his cheeks, the piece had been dubbed The Death of a Hippie, though Thek said it never had to do with hippiness. He didn’t pick it up, and it remains, in the words of curator Richard Flood, “one of the great, lost works in American art.”
But such loss seems a small tragedy for Thek, whose bodies of art were always more instinctively diverse and immediate then tightly directed toward posterity. In fact, in moving through the Hammer show, the works that have survived appear to have done so by accident, because Thek left them somewhere safe, or happened to craft them out of more or less indestructible material.
“Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses,” wrote Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay, Against Interpretation, dedicated to and likely inspired by Thek (a year after his 1988 death, of AIDS, she would dedicate AIDS and its Metaphors to him as well). “All the conditions of modern life–its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness–conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.” At the Hammer, Thek is present en mass, but he’s best in his specificity, experienced one piece, one phase at a time–not because the pieces are singularly fantastic in themselves, but because each was meant to exist in its own time, and each had its own quirks and inspirations.