Susan Sontag dedicated two books to Paul Thek, and Andy Warhol rated him one of “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys” for an ever-inconclusive film project. Jeez: Can anybody’s art measure up to that?
The UCLA Hammer Museum’s “Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective” is a rare chance to judge Thek’s art on its own terms. It’s rare because so much of Thek’s work isn’t in museums, and some key pieces have not survived. The show is fun, though it probably won’t convince you that Thek was anything more than a cool secondary figure in the Joe Brainard-ish mode. For many, the revelation will be that Thek was a pseudo-naif painter of teensy-tiny-pictures.
Thek is best known for his sculptures, and properly so. The show starts with a bang, namely a whole room of the “Technological Reliquaries.” Thek came to modest fame in the mid-1960s with this series of creepy wax sculptures of rotting flesh, encased in minimalist vitrines. Yes, you got that right—Damien Hirst did pretty much the same thing 30 years later, albeit with real livestock and bigger cubes. In the 1960s, Thek’s reliquaries were understood to be dead-on critiques of soulless minimalism. The Met and LACMA have recently used similar language to tout loans of Hirst taxidermy pieces from billionaire collectors.
The best of the Thek “Reliquaries” turns out to be LACMA’s Untitled (Meat Piece with Flies), pictured at top. LACMA bought it in 1996 with a $25,000 grant from the Judith Rothschild Foundation. Eight years later hedge fund tycoon Steven Cohen bought Hirst’s pickled shark (The Physical Impossibility of… etc., etc., whatever) for a reported $8 to $12 million.
Missing from the Hammer exhibition (but in this past winter’s Whitney showing) is Thek’s famous meat piece in a Warhol box (above left). Thek apparently had issues with the soullessness of pop, too.
Thek is called an “artist’s artist,” which often means “you had to be there.” Thek was at any rate among the first artists to focus on performances, with the associated props being preserved as documentation. Unlike today’s MFA careerists, he wasn’t overcareful about preserving the props. Thek grew so weary of travelling with his ever-morphing “Death of a Hippie” road show that he didn’t bother to collect the wax hippie/self-effigy when it was shipped back to him in New York. It’s now lost, aside from a few fragments and photographs (above, by Peter Hujar).
In the years before Thek’s 1988 death from AIDS at the age of 54, he turned his energies to painting. The selection here is wildly uneven, though often compelling in a low-key, Florine Stettheimer kind of way. Incredibly, Thek’s late paintings are ditzier and less market-oriented than Stettheimer’s. The subjects are absurd: dinosaurs, gnomes, numbers (12, bursting into blue flame like a Sesame Street bit), the big bang, “here’s what I see outside my apartment” cityscapes, and abstractions with text.
Thek likened his late paintings to Kandinsky and Klee and other modern masters. They have something of Kandinsky’s crazy sense of color, but overall they’re too unruly to have passed at the Bauhaus. A better analogy is that type of “outsider” artist who resorts to frantically scrawled text, dreading that the image will be inadequate to say what so desperately needs to be said. In early treatises on the art of the insane, it was held that horror vacui, the fear of emptiness, was symptomatic of the truly deranged. From his very deathbed, Thek celebrated all that in a painting inscribed “Hurrah Vacuii!!”