Critics’ Picks

Peter Hujar, Thek in the Palermo Catacombs (II), 1963/1994, gelatin silver print, 7 x 7”. © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.

New York

“Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s”

Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
26 Wooster Street
April 12–July 7, 2013

Three years ago, Paul Thek’s first American retrospective at the Whitney provided a comprehensive survey of his oeuvre, from his first exhibited “meat pieces” of the mid-1960s to the paintings he made just before his death from AIDS in 1988. The current exhibition, which features largely unseen early works by Thek, his lovers and his friends (Peter Harvey, Peter Hujar, and Joseph Raffael, to name a few), culls from a decade, 1954–64, directly following President Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order banning homosexuals from federal employment. Offering a glimpse beyond the thin veil of the McCarthy-era “lavender scare,” when gay rights were a quixotic notion at best, this sensitively curated gathering presents a poignant and aptly timed foil to the current global campaigns for marriage equality. Here, a former, improvisatory approach to identity comes into view, one that rejected any attempt to assimilate to the proscriptive sociosexual code of the period.

An untitled 1953 collage by Raffael, for example, undresses the heteronormative ideal of the heroic male athlete: A collapsed footballer, whose limp body and unbridled expression suggest the erotic, is escorted off-field by dismembered hands that seize him by forearm and underarm. To the left, a man’s upper limb and axilla, here shown nude and vulnerable, bear the fragmentary yet pregnant letters UN BE in seeming anticipation of George Joseph Thek’s own self-rechristening as Paul in 1955.

A later vitrine displays Thek’s untitled wax cast of his arm from his “Technological Reliquaries” series, 1964–67; painted silver and pink and bejeweled, it offers a burlesque take on his own Catholic mortality. Adjacent, Hujar’s macabre photograph Thek in the Palermo Catacombs (II), 1963, affirms Thek’s early preoccupation with bodily transience, decades before his physical deterioration from disease. Viewers may leave this show feeling a conflicted nostalgia––perhaps for an era when unacknowledged forms of love, sex, and death persisted despite the inertia of legislative politics––but, like one of Thek’s relics, this vestige of the past is best admired under a glass case.