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Discovering Paul Thek

I was at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh a few years back for the opening of a Peter Hujar show, when I was first made aware of Paul Thek. At the time his name or face meant nothing to me. ‘The Artist, Paul Thek’ was all the label read, I recall (or words to that effect) (figure i). The walls of the gallery were adorned with photographs of exhibitionists’, ‘freaks’, transvestites and some of New York’s most colourful individuals. Despite this general trend in Hujar’s selection of subjects, the image of Thek was without doubt the most memorable. The basic nature of its form and composition conveyed to me a subtlety, which produced an intrigue in the subject himself. I felt compelled to read this portrait against the rest of the images in the show. Much of those pictures spoke of the infamous New York parties of the 1960s and 70s, individuality and sexual freedom, and the autonomy of human expression. Thek’s portrait was not like this. No, in a natural slightly lopsided body position, wearing a ‘Pollak’ style T-shirt, and an intense gaze he displayed an honestly which spoke of the conclusion to this particular ‘party’. Its conclusion clearly prompted by the arrival of Aids, heavy drug addiction, political uncertainties and as always war. Without knowing anything of Thek at this point, it seemed to me the image referenced a realisation of the realities facing this generation and the tragic losses it would encounter.

Just last month, I was reading through Frieze when I came across an article. This Time Around written by Robert Storr was a piece on Thek which coincided with a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Because of this it led me to discover his art and the context for him creating it. Reading the article I felt a notable empathy and interest in his work, but specifically made a connection with my own practice. This I suspect was the reason for the nature of my recollection of the Hujar image of Thek.
Paul Thek Death of a Hippie
The fact that Thek now seems to be receiving a far wider reaching recognition, over twenty years after his untimely death, is not unusual in the art world. It often seems that the artists who where ‘out of step’ with the period they found themselves working in, receive the greatest accolades after they have departed this world; one just has to consider a certain Vincent as testimony to this. What also helps is being good which both he and Thek were.
Paul Thek 2
As an artist working during the Pop Art age and New York Factory scene which dominated this period, Paul Thek’s sculptures are based around Death; but more specifically the death of ideals and of an ‘era’. Thek visited the Palermo Catacombs in 1963 with Peter Hujar, who photographed much of the trip (a famous image from this trip depicts Thek’s encounter with the tomb and its remains (fig ii) ). This experience led to him making works which imagine what the relics from his contemporary time would look like. Of which humans remains and their rather gory forms take centre stage. The work Tomb- Death of a Hippie(1967) (fig iii) is one of the most memorable pieces and for me a work of great significance and singularity for its time. The work comments on his generation’s loss of faith in the American Dream and any kind of innocence they may have felt prior to the Vietnam War. It also connects with the 50’s and 60’s obsession with popular culture, but it appears to highlight certain artists’ now rather tired use of ‘pop’ as a legitimate source for their work, and condemns them for becoming the very objects they originally parodied.

When viewing Thek’s work I am reminded of the very last scene in Easy Rider (1969) (fig iv). The Death of the Hippie pre-dates this film by a couple of years but as we hear Roger Mcguinn’s Ballad of Easy Rider play and the senselessness of the crime unfold, they both seem emblematic of the same questions. The plastic corpse of Thek’s remarkably sculpted Hippie is the remnants of his generation; an epitaph to ‘the summer of love’ and all the promise allied with western notions of ‘land of the free’. As Thek and Hujar found artefacts in the Palermo tomb belonging to a past civilization, the artist envisaged what such a tomb would look like from his own time. Much of his works use this as their basis, but also as a vehicle for Thek to critique his age, depicted in such works as Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box (1965) (fig v).

iv) Easy Rider; The Final Scene

As I observe very few ‘angry’ artists now, or even socially or politically conscious ones (well not many good ones); I can appreciate one from an earlier time. Although subtle and quite beautifully profound Thek’s work was and still seems angry to me, which was perhaps his problem when it came to conventional notions of success, during his lifetime. However now at a safe distance, he can be looked at and admired. As much as his generation needed a Paul Thek then, we equally need one now.


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