PRINT November 1967

Thek’s Tomb

IN THE FIRST VOLUME OF La Vie Artistique, Gustave Geffroy refers to Whistler’s Mother and employs a startling critical device. “I would like to give to those who are interested in such matters,” he says, “the address of a masterpiece.” Geffroy’s arresting formula is entirely applicable to Thek’s Tomb. The gallery in which it is installed is the Stable Gallery although at this reading the Tomb will no longer be open to public inspection. For this reason, then, these partisan notes may carry some future validity as they attempt to describe a monument which may easily prove to be one of the unanticipated yet representative masterworks of American sculpture of the sixties. There are many indications in this piece that, like Duchamp’s Large Glass, the work represents a summation and an adieu.

One enters a spacious, rosily-lit and incensed haze out of which rises a large, three-tiered ziggurat. Punched into the face of the ziggurat is an entrance-way, recalling, perhaps intentionally, the pharaonic tomb display built into the Egyptian Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art which so impressed one as a child. Affixed to the entrance wall, like a museum label, is a coldly neutral explanation. Its arch-formalist prose bespeaks a contentiousness ultimately extraneous to this poetical monument, a kind of tongue-in-cheek put-down of the primary structure and its spare linguistics. In effect, while accurately describing the Tomb it affords no insight into the experience or meaning of the burial chamber. “Welcome: You are in a replica of the tomb. It has been prefabricated at a cost of $950.00 of 1/2” and 3/4” novaply by C and C Custom Woodwork . . . It is 11 1/2’ square at the base. Following an 85 degree angle it rises in three tiers to its 8 1/2’ height . . .”

Thek is a consummate technician and his selective, partly-realistic sculpture honors a procedure quite foreign to contemporary taste, wax casting, and recalls its once prestigious position in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mme. Tussaud’s effigies and other waxwork displays attest to a lingering fascination with this death-oriented medium which Thek has so vividly renovated.

Passing through the short entrance one arrives at a shallow parapet, like the interior of a glass phone booth, through which one peers into the dim pink light of the burial site of the artist’s wax simulacrum. The effigy is stretched out before us—the dead artist has been interred with unction. All is “petal and American vermillion” pink—the light, the garments, the Tomb interior, the shoes. Thek’s stringy blond locks have been casually brushed away from his forehead, revealing a dead mask, eye-lids closed, and a dark, plagued tongue flopping upon a half parted mouth. Thek’s long Genghis moustache, his lashes and lids have been painstakingly fitted, hair by hair, into the wax mask. Absolute fetishism.

Pinned to the cheeks are discs of painted butterfly-wing patterns. A funerary necklace alternates these circles with passages of hair, ending in a pendant and a long wash of hair that runs down the length of the seemingly embalmed body. Another necklace is pinned to the wall behind the artist’s head and a bracelet is wrapped around the visible, mutilated hand of the figure. About the body are ardently and modestly placed objects, once utilitarian, perhaps instrumental for some afterlife—bowls of covered food (drugs, soma?), blank pages (a journal, a sketchbook?). Fastened to the wall are vestiges of the artist’s past life; letters, blurred photographs and, in a little pouch, the missing fingers of the effigy’s mutilated hand. Fingers and sliced hand particularly obsess the artist. They appear in many of the companion works and may infer the terror, pain and/or sensory dislocation connected with the preparation and taking of drugs. Perhaps the image relates to an hallucination reinforced while in a drugged state. Certainly Thek’s fearsome dream has been passionately reconstructed for us; the dream of one’s own death. The central experience of the spectator is that of intrusion—so minutely and empirically has Thek visualized and established the locale and condition of his demise.

This may well be the means of grasping Thek’s exquisite art, for of several young artists working along similar lines—Joseph Raffaele and Paul Waldman being the most noteworthy examples—Thek remains the most distinctly orthodox Surrealist. On one hand he obsessively and finely prevaricates on the theatrical confrontations of seemingly unanticipated situations and objects, and, on the other, seeks to create an unchanging and serene world, itself a metaphor for self-loss (schizophrenia) and death (catatonic paralysis).

In another district of the gallery a rectangular site is roped off and occupied by a dozen remarkable boxes. The “offerings” are constructed of transparent plastic, the tops of which are troughs of some kind, either flat, sloping or tiered, suggesting the possibility of a kind of liquid-filled viewing pool through which one might peer at the boxes’ contents. Each box, set exactly into a fixed position on the floor, like a reconstruction of the ex-humation of a sacred burial site, is filled with fragments of the Thekian mania. Severed hands, arms, legs, artificial limbs and supports, are exquisitely altered and fabricated. They are painted in spiral butterfly patterns, or, like Chardin’s dusty, unwashed fruit, appear to be powdered with ashen third-degree burns, mouldering fungoids of lime-green putrescence or nacreous sheens. These virtuoso cultures glide into fritillary patches, and are studded by grinning false teeth and flushed moonstones.

Among the twelve “offerings” three are incredible. One is composed of shoes, shoe sections, a wax foot hacked off at the ankle, and a half-shoe which grows into an eviscerated and gorgeously plumed bird. Another displays a death mask in the process of decomposition. A psoriasis of green and violet mold attacks the putrid skin and grows into delicate filigrane. A ring pierces the tongue which sticks out past a set of polished dentures. In the last, an arm is braced to the fingers. A kind of shoulder shield has been slavishly fitted with glittering butterfly wings. Are these the ceremonious guarantees of a life after death, or the sensate immutables of life under drugs? Are these the ex-votos of a flower-child priesthood pledged to watch over the death, the trip, of its sleeping hero?

Robert Pincus-Witten