We live in an age ruled by a suspicion of institutions—financial, cultural, and governmental—in which institutions rule. This is particularly true in the art world, which invented the term “institutional critique.” So it’s not surprising that Paul Thek (1933–1988), who exhibited in museums in the ’60s and ’70s, then disappeared from art history, is being reintroduced now with a major museum retrospective.
Thek was offbeat, but not a complete outsider. Peripatetic and gay, he moved between continents and mediums. But he showed at the Stable Gallery—which also showed Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly—and Susan Sontag, a good friend, dedicated her seminal Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966) to him.
Sontag and Thek eventually parted ways. But Against Interpretation‘s thesis, that art started out as transporting magic and ritual and got ambushed by intellect and interpretation, applied to Thek. The eponymous essay’s last sentence could serve as his template: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
Thek’s erotics quickly became death-tinged, contesting the reigning coolness and rationality of ’60s Pop and Minimalism. The Technological Reliquaries (a/k/a “meat pieces”) from the mid-’60s, about a dozen of which are included in the Whitney Museum’s “Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective,” are boxes made of slick industrial Plexiglas. But then Thek polluted these primary-structure geometries with cross sections of fake meat, meticulously crafted with wax, resin, paint, and hair. One turns a Warhol “Brillo Box” into a gory showcase, with Plexiglas fitted into the ends of the plywood.
A series of chairs made for a 1968 show in Essen, Germany, was outfitted with s/m-ish straps and large apertures in the seats. Taxidermied buzzards and crows hover on the backs of the reconfigured furniture. Corpses and body parts show up in works like The Tomb (1967), later rechristened Death of a Hippie, a pink ziggurat housing a wax cast of the artist’s body with his tongue dangling out suggestively.
When you read about Thek’s visit to the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo, Sicily, in the early ’60s, the later sex-death drive registers even more keenly. Inside a corridor lined with windowed coffins, Thek wrote, “I opened one and picked up what I thought was a piece of paper; it was a piece of dried thigh. I felt strangely relieved and free. . . . We accept our thing-ness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.”
Alter-ego effigy works like Hippie and The Fishman (1968) echo that experience. But thing-ness began to dissolve in the late ’60s as Thek worked collaboratively to create ephemeral installations, often in museums in Europe. It was a period with more institutional latitude than the present. Thek would cover museum light fixtures with bags and light the show with candles to create a theatrical environment. In 1971, Thek and his band of artists were given the keys to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and allowed to come and go as they pleased. (Try running that past a museum legal department today.)
Not all the work here is remarkable; in fact, much of it isn’t particularly satisfying except read through the lens of poetic absence. Major works—including Death of a Hippie and the Ark, Pyramid installation for “documenta 5” in 1972—were disassembled and/or lost. In the ’70s and ’80s, Thek returned to painting, making brushy, abstract-expressionistic works on newspaper, which are intermittently interesting. One painted over a New York Times article provides a stunningly fitting subtext, however. It reads: “John Wimber’s blond curly hair and bushy beard are turning gray now, but he retains the countercultural verve of the 1960’s. A rock musician, about to leave on a nationwide tour, he became a convert to the evangelical ‘Jesus’ movement. He never made the trip, he says, because the Lord led him in another direction.”
The beauty of Thek’s career—although this show unfortunately posits him more as an object maker than a creator of theatrical, ephemeral environments—is that his trajectory led perennially in another direction. And it didn’t end in his own, singly authored work or collaborations, but in its contiguity with and (sometimes indirect) impact on others: Marcel Broodthaers, Ed Kienholz, Paul McCarthy, Franz West, Kiki Smith, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, Mark Dion.
Many of these artists, interestingly, are included in the current installation of the permanent collection on the Whitney’s fifth floor. It, too, is a slightly frustrating display—limited, in this case, to what’s on hand in the collection. But you see in some of the works the reverberations of Thek (and to some extent Sontag), who viewed art not as a text or discrete, formalist object, but as a liminal process and that messiest of entities: a vehicle for spiritual transportation.