Critics’ Picks

Paul Thek, Untitled (Bouncing Earth, 2nd Time), 1975/92, etching on handmade Twinrocker paper, 10 x 7 1/2".

Paul Thek, Untitled (Bouncing Earth, 2nd Time), 1975/92, etching on handmade Twinrocker paper, 10 x 7 1/2".

Brussels

Paul Thek

Jan Mot
Petit Sablon / Kleine Zavel 10
September 6–October 26, 2019

In 1989, twenty-eight copper plates that Paul Thek had etched with drawings and writings were discovered by the gallerist Ted Bonin and assistant Dennis Redmond in a New York City storeroom. Only a few prints were made during the artist’s life, which was cut tragically short by AIDS the year before. This exhibition presents a set of prints created, in 1992, from those plates, which themselves date to 1975. His earliest engravings, comet-strewn nightscapes with phrases such as “COMING OUT OF THE HILLS, AMERICAN PICASSOS, OR BUST,” were mistakenly prepared by Thek to print their exclamations backward. A follow-up, “I AM, AM I?” (also this show’s title), seems to wink at these blunders, turning an openness to failure into something humbly, grandly existential. The phrase is emblazoned on scrolls that unfurl from slapdash clouds, which float in a tightly crosshatched sky. Nearby, the palindromic “AVE/EVA” is likely a posthumous dedication to his friend the artist Eva Hesse.

At once dense and light, these small-scale prints are a unique syncretism of Thek’s omnivorous interest in jazz, the unconscious, the Bible, politics, astronomy, and love. Though many lessons can be drawn from the plates, perhaps the most important one is that, in an industry where artists struggle to make seductive and monumental work, art doesn’t have to shine. It’s more about existing, maintaining a sense of humor about the world, and opening up as much as possible while remaining alive to questions without answers.