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#ArtDept: The Life and Work of Paul Thek


On Fire Island 1968, photo courtesy of Hammer Museum

Paul Thek (1933 – 1988) was a painter, sculptor and installation artist. Once celebrated, he has slipped through the cracks of art history. He deserves our attention in the 21st century.

Born in Brooklyn, he studied at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute and Cooper Union. After graduating in 1954, Thek moved to Miami where he became partners with set designer Peter Harvey who designed for George Balanchine at New York City Ballet including the spectacular Jewels (1967). Harvey introduced Thek to the leading artists, composers and writers of the era, including Tennessee Williams.

During this time, he created some of his first drawings, including studies in charcoal and graphite, later followed by abstract watercolors and monochrome oil paintings. In 1957, Thek exhibited his works for the first time in a Miami gallery.

Miami 1957, via Wikimedia Commons

Diver, 1958, via Carnegie Museum of Art

After his return to New York in 1959, his artistic circle of friends included photographer Peter Hujar and writer Susan Sontag, both whom he had romantic relationships.

In the early 1960s, when American Abstract Expressionism reigned, Thek was modeling hyper-realistic images of meat, raw and bleeding, from beeswax. Gross, yet witty, they had the art world buzzing.

“Meat In Brillow Box” (1964), The Whitney

Then in 1967, Thek abruptly left for Europe and radically changed his art. Instead of sculpture, he created immense, collaborative, ephemeral environments from throwaway stuff: newspapers, candles, flowers, vegetables and fruit, eggs, and sand. When their time was up, these pieces were tossed in the garbage. Handsome Thek, with his long blond hair and considerable charm, was a bigly success in Europe. Galleries and museums courted him. He stayed for nine years.

Photo from UCLA, Hammer Museum via YouTube

Photo from UCLA, Hammer Museum via YouTube

In 1976, when he returned to NYC, he was shocked to find that almost no one remembered the work he had done in the 1960s or knew what he had been up to in Europe in the years since, or even cared. He had been away too long. The 1960s were finished.

He had a few Manhattan gallery shows and an exhibition at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, but people stayed away. Depressed and angry, he painted quick, small pictures in his East Village walk-up, smoked a lot of pot, cruised parks and kept an obsessively confessional diary. To support himself, he worked as a checker in a grocery store and in a hospital washing floors.

Untitiled (1967), The Whitney

”Warrior’s Leg” (1967) the Hirshhorn Museum

Hand with Ring, 1968

Thek had so much going for him: talent, looks, energy and a peculiar imagination. He was only 54-years-old when he died of HIV/AIDS in 1988.

His memorial service at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery wasn’t crowded, but his eulogists were Robert Wilson and Sontag, and that’s something. Sontag had dedicated her breakthrough book, Against Interpretation (1966) to Thek. In 1989 she would dedicate another, AIDS And Its Metaphors, to his memory.

Photo 1958 by Peter Harvey

Thek was the subject of a massive, moving and much-anticipated, well-attended retrospective in 2010 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today his work may be seen in numerous collections, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; Hammer Museum, L.A. and the Whitney Museum.

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