Paul Thek

By Armstrong, Elizabeth | Artforum International, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Paul Thek


Armstrong, Elizabeth, Artforum International


Marcel Duchamp once said that "a picture dies after a few years like the man who painted it. Afterward its called the history of art." The process, however, is not inevitable: as Chris Dercon writes in his catalogue foreword for Paul Thek - The wonderful world that almost was the history of art has seriously undervalued the work of Paul Thek. The exhibition, organized by Roland Groenenboom, provides the opportunity to judge whether Thek's art now has the historicity necessary to be more fully assessed and appreciated.

There are a number of reasons behind Thek's neglect. For one thing, he spent the most productive years of his career as a nomadic American expatriate in Europe, remaining obscure to the U.S. art audience. Unfortunately, he also remained obscure to most Europeans. Thek tended to work with unstable materials, and to present his art as work in progress. As many other installation- and performance-oriented artists of the period found out (those affiliated with Fluxus, for example), the use of temporary environments and ephemeral objects - reflecting not only tenuous finances and makeshift exhibition possibilities but a rebelliously spontaneous esthetic - tends to elude art history. Another factor, also shared by some of Thek's most interesting peers was the work's lack of a dominant medium, genre, or style. Commonplace enough now, this strategy invited critical and commercial neglect at the time. Likewise, Thek's tendency to work with collaborators may have diminished his authorial presence in the eyes of critics and curators.

Then there was Thek's ambivalence about being an artist at all. In an interview with Harald Szeemann in 1973, he talked about the art life in New York in the late '60s: "I felt like a rather useless member of society, just producing more and more rarefied artifacts while all hell seemed to be breaking loose.... I had no idea what I was supposed to do, or how to do it, or if I was supposed to do anything. The artist's role was simply insufficient as it had been presented to me." Feeling "cooped up" in New York, Thek lived in Europe off and on during the '60s and '70s, roaming around with a nomadic group of friends and collaborators. In Europe he discovered Joseph Beuys, and other helpful models for the role of "artist." He also found a culture more open to the soulful, organic, downright funky installations that he had begun to create.

Among the first of these idiosyncratic, meditative environments was The Procession/The Artist's Co-op, 1969. The name may be a pun on "cooped up," but it also alludes to the cooperative aspect of Thek's artmaking. Like later installations, the work evoked a bond between nature and the human world, combining elements such as branches, sand, flowers, and vegetables with materials like newspapers and wire mesh. Part of the installation - the Dwarf Parade Table - was reconstructed for the Rotterdam show.

At the heart of Thek's environments were several key figurative forms that traveled with him like members of his band of collaborators. One of these, Fishman, 1968, commanded center stage at the Witte de With, hanging conspicuously above the topmost stairs. This latex cast of the artist's body is posed as if floating, perhaps buoyed up by fish. If the Christian references don't resonate immediately, the sensation of a man at once drowning and flying is effectively dislocating. In Rotterdam, one of the Fishman was wedged under a table suspended from the ceiling, as it was in the last few Thek installations in Europe. In this configuration it is titled Fishman in Excelsis Table.

Another of Thek's body casts was titled "Death of a Hippie," a name Thek disliked but which the piece never shook. Cast in wax in 1967, this deathly figure, its eyelids closed and dark tongue sticking out, was first installed as part of a larger installation, The Tomb. There it was surrounded by useful objects for the afterlife - blank notebook pages and covered bowls of food. …

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