The Fascinating Contradictions of Paul Thek

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The Fascinating Contradictions of Paul Thek

“Feathered Cross” (1969) is a fitting greeting for visitors to Paul Thek: Interior/Landscape, on view at the Watermill Center through November 13. The feathers add a note of irreverence, softening the object’s power. Even covered in feathers, though, this giant cross still commands a room, towering over the artworks in front of it. The sculpture encapsulates of the work and life of an artist who rebelled against his early virtuosity as a draftsman by rendering doodles and scrawls in later works, and who chafed against the aspects of religion that rejected his gayness, while remaining a devout Catholic. He was a polymath whose work includes paintings, sketches, collages, installations, and sculptures.

The tensions and contradictions that make Thek’s work hard to pin down, and to market, are also what makes it fascinating. There’s so much variety on view in the Watermill’s galleries that it could almost be a group show. Yet, its considered curation results in a comprehensive tour of his practice, highlighting themes like nature, death, rebirth, and faith. There are enough key pieces from each period of his career, and in each medium, to make it feel cohesive. 

Installation view of Paul Thek: Interior/Landscape at the Watermill Center, Water Mill, NY

Thek’s precise drafting skills are on display in the untitled drawings he created in Italy in 1976, in which graphite adds subtle texture to the mountains and seascapes of his beloved Ponza, where he lived in the 1970s. Despite their technical proficiency, though, they become repetitive after a while; Thek’s skill would have come through just as much with fewer examples. 

The Technological Reliquaries series, his most iconic works, and my favorite pieces on view, are a highlight of the show. They’re sculptures composed of casts of flesh taken from his own body and abstracted, as well as wax made to look like raw meat, and various items from nature, like leaves, all encased in plexiglass vaults. “Untitled” (1964) features lacquered wax masquerading as meat, emblazoned with the number 75. It resembles a fossilized slice of Sicilian pizza, yet inspires reverence simply because it’s behind glass, like a museum display of religious relics, or perhaps ancient porcelain or other vessels. 

It’s also a nod to the minimalist sculptures popular at the time, but the visceral and emotional qualities diverge from minimalism’s aloof aesthetic as they dare viewers to consider the corporeal on the same elevated level as the spiritual.

Installation view of Paul Thek: Interior/Landscape at the Watermill Center, Water Mill, NY

In contrast, the so-called “bad paintings” that Thek made toward the end of his career unfortunately live up to their name. They’re composed of child-like scrawls, zig-zags and doodles straight out of a bored teen’s notebook — for example, “Susan Lecturing on Neitzsche” (1987) (the philosopher’s name is intentionally misspelled, which pokes fun at Sontag’s teaching through handwriting in the style of bathroom wall graffiti. Nearby, in “Untitled (Five Vertical Red Lines)” (1981), red lines suggest careless cuts into the “skin” of the pink background. Including these works contributes to a broad overview of Thek’s career, but I would have liked his other installations to receive more real estate. 

If you can’t make it out to Long Island, or if you’d like a bigger dose of Thek, Paul Thek: Relativity Clock, on view at Alexander and Bonin through October 16, serves as both context for and a companion to the Watermill show. In addition, there’s a portrait by Peter Hujar, “Paul Thek with Hand Sculptures” (1967/2010), and pages from Thek’s journals.

Paul Thek, Untitled (Meat Piece with Chair) (from the series ‘Technological Reliquaries’) 1966
wax, bronze, formica and plexiglass
16 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 9 1/2 in/ 42 x 55 x 24 cm
photo: Joerg Lohse
© Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York

“Untitled (Meat Piece with Chair)” (1966), from the Technological Reliquaries series, is a powerful centerpiece. Inside a glass case is an object that looks like the gaping maw of a fish with its head cut off, its satiny scales shining. The creature’s body seems to be crying out in pain, even without a head to fully express it. A tiny chair keeps watch over the fish-like creature and the gallery, from the top of a small shelf. Equally visceral are the wax-cast fake meats in “Untitled (meat cable)” (1969), which loom over the front gallery. Strung across metal cables, the wax meat resembles little hearts or brains, body parts on display. 

The show features some excellent paintings, too, including “Untitled (Diver)” (1969), in which the subject’s muscles are highlighted in pink to show his shoulders and arms rippling with exertion, against an azure sky that blends into the sea. 

I found the the picture light paintings more puzzling. In works such as “Pink Cross and Green Buds” (1975-80) childlike drawings are placed in ornate gold frames mounted with lights, as if on display in a collector’s home; chairs are placed in front of them for visitors to sit in and apparently contemplate the paintings. In the contrast between the simple pictures and the scholarly setting, Thek seems to be challenging us to question his set-up, to ask whether these simplistic works warrant contemplation. Even if I didn’t like the paintings themselves, I admired the challenge. 

Installation view of Paul Thek: Interior/Landscape at the Watermill Center, Water Mill, NY

Thek, who died in 1988 of AIDS, was close to Peter Hujar and Susan Sontag (she even dedicated her 1966 book Against Interpretation to him), but, despite critical acclaim, he was never quite as famous during his lifetime, or as comfortable in the art world, as some of his closest friends. The exhibitions are a tribute to his talent and vision; hopefully they’ll encourage a larger art audience to give him the recognition he deserves. 

Paul Thek: Interior/Landscape continues at the Watermill Center (39 Watermill Towd Road, Water Mill, New York) through November 13. The exhibition was organized by Noah Khoshbin and Owen Laub.

Paul Thek: Relativity Clock continues at Alexander and Bonin (47 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through October 16.

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