PRINT October 1981


Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts . . . it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.
—Ingmar Bergman1

IN THE CONTEXT OF MAINSTREAM American art, Paul Thek is an outsider. Except for three years in the late ’60s, his work has, almost exclusively, been created and chronicled in Europe. While he is well represented abroad, not one painting or sculpture by him has found a home in an American public collection.

One can speculate endlessly as to why Thek has been so ignored in his own country. The adamant secularism of contemporary American art has certainly not helped to advance an artist so deeply responsive to Catholicism, scholasticism, current events, folk ritual, legend, and literature in his creative expression. But the simplest reason for his exclusion may well be expressed by a qualified saw from that most irascible of American thinkers, H. L. Mencken: “It is almost as safe to assume that any artist of any dignity is against his country, i.e., against the environment in which God hath placed him, as it is to assume that his country is against the artist.”2 Thek’s acceptance in Europe, where the emergence of Arte Povera provided a nurturing climate for his maverick, melting-pot esthetic, makes sense.

From 1968 to the present, Thek has traveled through western Europe with a small band of collaborators constructing enormous, complex environments which, whenever possible, coincide with seasonal and/or religious celebrations. These environments, referred to by Thek as “Processions” (a pun on process art), often involve improvisational events occasioned by the construction and maintenance of their environment, and always celebrate regional custom, national myth, and universal aspirations. Once incorporated, objects and artifacts tend to be carried from one “Procession” to another. These “props,” like members of a repertory company, advance and retreat in importance according to the demands of the occasion; of consistent importance, however, is the mise-en-scène, which is structured to absorb and activate the spectator. As with Artaud’s unrealized dream of theater, Thek’s Processions aspire “. . . to make space speak, to feed and furnish it; like mines laid in a wall of rock which all of a sudden turns into geysers and bouquets of stone.”3 Thek’s environments are inevitably exercises in spatial choreography, but they are also occasions for the dramatization of the spectator/participant—a theater designed to ennoble and stimulate a poetically conceived common man.

In addition to the environments, Thek has produced a remarkably varied body of paintings and sculpture. The paintings, executed on canvas and newspaper, are unique in their bravura virtuosity, racing expertly through those styles and subjects that the artist feels a need to exorcise or advance. Thek’s sculpture is a curious combination of the intensely self-analytic and ingenuously dogmatic. From the melodramatic wax pieces of the late ’60s through the clunky, homely bronzes of the mid-’70s, Thek’s sculpture provides an odd artistic outline that backtracks from a Yeatsian Byzantium to Altamira. And, lest any of it become too precious, Thek has often literally heaped his paintings and sculpture into the democratic maws of the Processional environments, where every actor is an extra. It is an unfashionable, intoxicatingly humane esthetic that resists the cooptation of the artist through the alternatives of service to the public and achievement through simplicity of means.

It is convenient to return again to Mencken for an appropriate caution: “The special quality which makes an artist of him might almost be defined, indeed, as an extraordinary capacity for irritation, a pathological sensitiveness to environmental pricks and stings. He differs from the rest of us mainly because he reacts sharply and in an uncommon manner to phenomena which leave the rest of us unmoved, or, at most, merely annoy us vaguely.”4

Paul Thek’s first New York show took place in 1964 at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery when the artist was 31. In the words of Suzanne Delehanty, the work emerged as “a protest against pop art’s ready acceptance of mass production and minimalism’s idealization of technology.”5 Yet Thek’s “protest” was curiously complicit with the work that occasioned it. For four years, his pieces involved the fabrication of wax facsimiles of raw meat embedded in increasingly luxurious Plexiglas cases. Looking back, the pieces are temptingly analogous to the America of that period, when the lid was still firmly clamped on the disaffection that would eventually boil up over Vietnam. All that putrefied flesh in those glitzy cases now seems horribly, presciently accurate. What follows is one side of an annotated conversation with Paul Thek conducted last May.

The Artist rejects painting, embraces wax, sculpts faux meat, finds a gallery, changes galleries, and reflects on the nature of his role: I went to see a Jasper Johns show and I saw that he was working in wax and I started to work in wax. Then the meat pieces happened. Very clearly I saw this meat on a wall, almost crucified, hanging on a wall like a painting. The first sculpture was just a piece of meat in a strange case. After I’d done that two or three times, the pieces became squares on squares—puns on the Albers of the period. I did meat in just about every conceivable way, always enclosed in a cage or a box or a frame. About as far as I got into baroque humor at that time was a birthday cake which grew out of an homage to Albers, although I never indicated that in the title. I took a piece to Eleanor Ward at Stable and she liked it and kept it overnight and was very imperial—something like no, I never make decisions while the artist is here—and then she called me the next day and asked how quickly I could have a show ready. I think she may have called me in June or July and the show opened her fall season. That’s how quick it was. After that, some of the pieces became less mathematically square, more gouged, like large portions of the limbs of monsters. . . . By then I’d moved to a gallery on 57th Street and the cases became very ornate and very expensive. I was much influenced by people like Larry Bell and the incredible—I keep wanting to say ’50s but it was actually ’60s; it feels ’50s to me—pristine construction of the period. . . . It didn’t seem to hurt my work, which just got stranger because that chunk of whatever it was that I was presenting was still such a gripper. Though, toward the end, I think that the cases got out of line. I was through with them anyway.

I was amused with the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene—where the name of the game seemed to be “how cool can you be and ”how refined." Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it. I was a wreck, the block was a wreck, the city was a wreck; and I’d go to a gallery and there would be a lot of fancy people looking at a lot of stuff that didn’t say anything about anything to anyone. Not that I will in any way negate the value of beauty and patience and dedication and the work of the contemplative. Of course not, how absurd of me. But still, I thought there was a lack and that it was my job to say so.

The Artist combines meat and Plexiglas to address a conspiracy: Sylvia Kraus was a wonderful lady of the period. She was always very nicely dressed in a kind of Schrafft’s, middle-aged-matron way, and gave out mimeographed papers on 57th Street. She would mount attacks on communism and pesticides and all that sort of thing. The attacks were worded in a really fanatic, assertive way so that it seemed that she was bananas, but frequently her causes were right, and, if not right, were just slightly to the crazy side of what was right. She had a kind of poetic misunderstanding of reality in a very beautiful way. And the Hippopotamus Poison piece was taken from one of her tracts. [“I Sylvia Kraus, before God, do hereby allege that a protracted desolating weapon HIPPOPOTAMUS POISON is being used to insidiously annihilate men, women and children. This poison is being blended into food, beverages and tobacco to simulate heart attack, cancer, stroke, etc. Lest we perish from within. . . STOP THIS MASSACRE.”] I think I only changed one word and put in “Hippopotamus” for something else. I wanted to throw it away from the simply anecdotal. I wanted to blow the logic of that particular understanding and, at the same time, enlarge it beyond the anecdotal.

The Artist addresses the meaning of meat sculpture and moves on: I don’t know that there was that much to understand. For me, it was absolutely obvious. Inside the glittery, swanky cases—the “Modern Art materials that were all the rage at the time, Formica and glass and plastic—was something very unpleasant, very frightening, and looking absolutely real. It seemed to me that nobody noticed the fact that I was dealing with a frightening subject with absolute patience and control so that it became serene. Nobody noticed that I was working with the hottest subject known to man—the human body—and doing it in a totally controlled way which, I thought, was the required distancing. . . . I remember going to a party and having someone say, ”Oh, there’s the meat man.“ And I thought, ”Well, that’s enough of that."

Thek’s final, American-produced sculpture of the period, The Tomb—Death of a Hippie (on which Neil Jenney worked as his assistant), was a succès de scandale that has both dogged and cemented his career. His gallery at the time did not want to exhibit the piece and, in 1967, Thek returned to Stable Gallery. Accompanying The Tomb was work that had, rather poetically, evolved from the meat pieces. Here, instead of chunks of flesh, were the severed limbs of heroes. The Plexiglas cases remained, but they now held arms and legs sheathed in fantastic, occasionally whimsical (an armlet covered in butterfly wings) armor. The focus, however, was a virulent-pink pyramid containing a beeswax effigy of Thek attired in a pink suit, adorned with delicate jewelry of gold and woven hair, surrounded by pink goblets, a funerary bowl, and private letters. Near the entrance was tacked a putdown of Minimalism, which began: “Welcome: You are in a replica of the tomb. It has been prefabricated at a cost of $950.00. . .” At the time, Robert Pincus-Witten described The Tomb as “. . . 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.”^^6 He was right on both counts. The Tomb—Death of a Hippie definitively wrapped up a decade of “flower power.” Within a year came the violence in Chicago during the Democratic Convention; for Thek, the end had already come. The week that The Tomb opened in New York, he was on his way to Europe, where, with only an occasional trip home, he would remain through the ’70s.

The Artist experiments with body parts, creates a body, and ponders the importance of technique: The body pieces were elements in the show [The Tomb]. They were laid out on the floor in their cases and roped off with red cord, placed in a way so that they looked like finds from a tomb or an archeological site. But they were also totally non-archeological-looking because they were all glittering and plastic and terribly refined. And in another room was this absolutely simple pink thing. [The Tomb itself.] I was making jewelry from hair and gold, which was too fragile to ever be worn, but it was really beautiful, so I thought there must be something to put it on. [The Hippie in The Tomb.] The body pieces began appearing because I was trying to figure out how to make a full bodycast. I’d never done molds or anything like that before. I was working with dentists’ moulage, which is used for open wounds and is extremely quick-setting. I had a studio filled with imperfect limbs covered with different-colored wax, to test the tinting, so it was an easy, natural thing to make use of them. If I have an esthetic, it’s rooted to some extent in pragmatism. If you have something around, you might as well try and make something out of it. I knew technique was of no importance. In one of the reviews of that period, somebody [Pincus-Witten] called me a master technician [“consummate technician” was the actual phrase] and I thought, “That’s absolute nonsense and an insult; you don’t call an artist a master technician—that’s somebody else.”

In Europe, Thek created another doppelgänger, Fishman, 1968, a life-size latex bodycast strategically attired in a school of gray fish. Thek’s former apologist, Pincus-Witten, saw Fishman as a “noxious bit of self-parading”7 and there is certainly something piously creepy in the piece’s Christian-martyr complex. Nonetheless, it didn’t take Thek long to put Fishman in its place. Once reverentially/purgatively displayed on its own, Fishman entered the Processions as just one more member of the corps de ballet. (Removed from The Tomb the same fate was later to overtake the Hippie, a piece Thek appears to regard with something between avuncular affection and sibling antagonism.)

Fishman’s first ensemble appearance was in Thek’s Processional, The Artist’s Co-op, 1969, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Here, Fishman was somewhat cavalierly strapped under the worktable on which it had been made and situated in the center of a chicken coop (with, naturally, real chickens). The Co-op, which wandered through two galleries, was a densely populated but essentially linear installation which, while significantly altering the museum space, did not deny it. The sum effect was a kind of Beuysian baroque. But where Beuys was already undeniably icy, Thek was courting an intellectual and emotional thaw. Among the elements swirling through the Co-op were, in no particular order, a stuffed dog with applied Mama Roma teats, a deluge of suspended tissues, an assortment of decorated eggs sprouting shoestring umbilical cords, a selection of Van Gogh paintings from the Stedelijk’s storehouse, and a latex dwarf (“Assurbanipal”), which simultaneously evoked every awful lawn ornament you’ve ever seen, one of Santa’s elves, Rumpelstiltskin, and a goofy Nibelung. With The Artist’s Co-op, the ultimately dead-ended solipsism of Hippie and Fishman was irrevocably reversed.

The Artist criticizes the critics and discovers process: Reading reviews from the New York show [The Tomb], a lot of critics seemed outraged that I had strayed from the path of “true art” and had actually dared to involve myself, warning me of the consequences. And I thought, “I’m well aware,” but also thought that I’d had no alternative at the time. I didn’t think it was up to the critics or anyone else—speaking esthetically, stylistically or therapeutically—to tell me what to do. And if art has any validity, or my original action any purpose, I had to do it again. . . . The show that I did in Germany in 1968 [A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress: Objects Theoretically to Wear, Carry, Pull, or Wave, Galerie M.E. Thelen, Essen, West Germany] changed from day to day by necessity because the pieces had all arrived broken. That taught me how important process was; there was no point at which you could logically say “now, it’s finished.”

Apropos of Fishman, an Italian craftsman who was struggling to keep alive in Amsterdam was hoping to get a contract from the city to produce trash cans around this latex dwarf with a big receptacle mouth. But the city fathers didn’t buy it. . . . Every time I’d go to the man’s studio, I saw this big dwarf there unused and I fell in love with the hopelessness of the situation. A Dutch friend of mine said, “Oh, Assurbanipal the dwarf,” because the treatment of the beard looked kind of Assyrian. So from then on, I tried to squeeze him into the shows, and he became indispensable.

The Artist encounters and adapts Beuys: Beuys was someone I worked off. He certainly had a great impact on me. I saw his work for the first time—I’d never heard of him before—in the summer of ’68 in Munich. I walked into the museum and I thought I was in the wrong building. I was totally thrown off. Above that, it seemed to be incredibly moving—but ponderous, really ponderous. The work seemed totally devoid of wit or humor or grace, and was didactic to the point of extinction. But I thought there was a visual presentation which I could work off. It seemed to me that all it needed was glamor and worth and charm and a woman’s touch. It needed some softness. It was all hard edge and nasty; no relationship to the spirit.

The Artist establishes Van Gogh as a forefather of funk and gets to handle some masterpieces: At that point [spring of ’69], I was very much into funk. I don’t know what funk is, but if it means “earthy,” and “down home at the farm,” and “folks,” then I liked that. Those Van Goghs are so beautiful and that particular man is the personification of the artist for that time. The paintings were available—they were in the storehouse of the museum—and it seemed silly that they weren’t being seen. The work [The Artist’s Co-op] was about country, in addition to being about myth and ideas. Everything in the show was rough, stained, literally lived-in; not shiny, not new, very handmade. It was a revenge against the wax and plastic pieces, a rebellion against those years which were totally inhuman. That stuff was so fragile and the cases so delicate; after years of that, I thought, “this is insanity.” From then on, as much as possible, the work was easy to deal with—hard to break and not especially valuable, not especially important. It was the cult of funk, really. And those Van Goghs seemed to fit in perfectly because they were about country. They were the early ones, which have always seemed to me to be some of the most beautiful because they’re not bananas like the ones at Arles. . . . It seemed natural to relate the earthiness of my piece to the earthiness of those paintings. . . . Besides, that way I could actually get to touch them.

The Artist distinguishes between himself and another artist with funk associations: I don’t feel related to Edward Kienholz at all, but he is certainly a current-events person. He’s certainly of the world and he’s not lost in abstraction or esthetics—for yea or nay—but I don't feel related to him visually or esthetically. I think he’s very good at presenting the pain, but he doesn’t present any solution. And the solution would have to be in execution and beauty. When I think of execution, I think of the pain—the discipline— of doing those things.

The first of Thek’s all-over environments was Pyramid/A Work in Progress, 1971–72, at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. With Pyramid, Thek managed to totally reinvent the space in which he was working. Sand and planking formed walkways; theatrical lighting and candles provided dim illumination; structures of newspaper and screening, buttressed with saplings, created bowers of disposable information. For museum goers, it was a free fall into Western culture. References were so abundant that an old fishing barge became a vessel capable of Protean metamorphoses—a Viking long boat, Noah’s ark, Huck’s raft, KonTiki, the raft of the Medusa, the Flying Dutchman, the Ship of Fools, the Ark of the Covenant. Visual juxtapositions came and went like colors in an oil slick. Much of the encyclopedic layering was due to the myriad details provided by Thek’s collaborators who were given creative autonomy within areas of the overall environment. As, over the years, the Processions moved from Essen to Amsterdam to Stockholm to Kassel (1972) to Lucerne (1973) to Duisburg (1973) to Philadelphia (1977) to Venice (1980) to London (1981), the collaborators (most notably and consistently Franz Deckwitz and Ann Wilson)8 developed an increasingly sophisticated visual language which fed off of and into Thek’s ecumenical pluralism. With his Processions, Thek managed to create a transitory equivalent to the collective effort occasioned by the medieval cathedral.

The Artist gives a tour of his Swedish Procession: They wanted me to do The Tomb in the Moderna Museet in Sweden. [The Tomb had been reconstructed several times for what Thek refers to as “soul jerker” shows à la “Human Concern/Personal Torment—The Grotesque in American Art” at the Whitney in ’69.] By then I was more than tired of doing the thing, but they were insisting that they wanted to see it, so I consented to let the “corpse” come but decided to leave it in its packing crate and do something else with it entirely. I made it look like it was in a boat.

When we were in Sweden, we saw images of Viking chieftains on funeral boats that were floated down the rivers to the sea in flames. And I put something like that together, with tables and chairs. So a part of the show had the “corpse” in it, but by then I put a beautiful fresh blue blanket on it with a sheet and a pillow. And I filled the crate with tulip bulbs and onion bulbs that, during the two months that the show was up, sprouted.

That was the show where I first did the pyramid. The Hippie was simply placed in the choreography of the movement of the public through the space. One had to come through a twisting, almost-pink newspaper tunnel, and walk up some steps onto a wharf which is in a truncated pyramid. On the inside are blue newspaper walls held up by trees from which I had not stripped the branches or leaves so it feels like a forest. So you are in a forest in a pyramid at the end of a tunnel and it is painted blue like the sea and lit by candles. And then the wharf is set as a dining room. There’s some bread on the table and some wine and newspaper clippings and books and prayers. In a corner is a little light and a chair and a flute. There is also a piano and a bathtub with oars. And then you leave the pyramid and there’s a large room to wander through with all sorts of things [notably The Artist’s Co-op, Fishman and “Assurbanipal”] and it’s all lit by candles and filled with waves of sand. And at the very end, just before you exit, is the Hippie as a Viking chieftain in a kind of boat. But you almost don’t see it. There’s no light on it; it’s a total throwaway at that point.

The Artist clarifies his environmental goals: I want to present an atmosphere—an ambience—which is so peaceful and so beautiful that you’re shattered when you leave. My feeling is that the only way you can make things better is by showing how good things can be.

I like to work in a way that people mis-see. I like people to mis-see. I like puns. I like them to mis-hear. I think Arthur Koestler said something about mistakes being the route to creativity. I notice that in myself. I make a mistake—I mis-see or I mis-hear—and it’s much more creative than had I understood it correctly. If I can possibly provoke an instance for people where that can happen spontaneously, I want it to happen.

Thek has never been willing to censor himself out of his work. The result is a kind of visual roman à clef in which the artist assumes and describes those personae which, for him, are emotionally expedient. An etching, Artist’s Proof, 1975, was a position statement and introduced a new alter-ego, based on the legendary black minstrel, Bo Jangles. The etching’s secular adaptation of the Stations of the Cross reads like a post-Watergate exorcism, and along with a number of Thek’s paintings on newspaper, provocatively addresses the erosion of the American spirit in the aftermath of Vietnam. Included in Artist’s Proof is a depiction of a tarbaby, another artist surrogate, which Thek later executed in bronze. Interestingly, Thek’s mid-’70s bronzes are totally antithetical to the earlier wax and Plexiglas pieces. Exhibited in ’76 under an umbrella title, The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, the bronzes are assertively ugly little things with a rustic finish. They are also disarmingly amusing and in keeping with the whimsical, post-mortem title. Included among the “effects” are several families of mice, the remains of a campfire, a bowl of cherries, a pyramid sprouting a pumpkin stalk, and a facsimile of Uncle Tom’s Cabin out of which soars a scaffolding tower. Seemingly pocked and charred, the bronzes rebuff any hint of adorableness which their scale might imply. While clearly remnants of a benign, rural cycle, they also suggest a quick, fiery finale.

The Artist reveals the origin of three alter-egos: The Pied Piper came into being of necessity and as self defense. I had to get rid of the cancer fodder in my emotional system. I hope that I turned it into something very beautiful. I’m just sorry the pieces never came to their final fruition, but I’m sure I’ll put them together at some point. Also, by then I wanted to stretch out of that Christ image that Fishman and Hippie had put me into and to broaden it.

I was by then, unwittingly, a kind of mystic showman and, of course, a fraud. It was just me. I was continually getting people who were furious with me for having tampered with the mythology or iconography of something. I thought, “what are they talking about, it’s my job.” The Bo Jangles etchings are my attempt to update the Stations of the Cross a little bit and slide them sideways. I was hoping to do things like “Bo Jangles falls the second time.” Bo Jangles is a poor clownish collaborator—as we all are—in a hopelessly lethal, totally inhuman system. All I wanted to say was that you can do the Jesus Christ routine if you want to—we can all pretend to be noble—but we’re still enriching a vicious system and passing on one sick family after another as we continue to overpopulate the planet. And I thought in just a couple of images—pithy images, you would say—I could, if the beholder would but be aware, connect a couple of ideas. I had Jerry Jeff Walker’s song in mind. I did the etchings in Paris so the “Bo” had been misspelled into “Beau” which is kind of nice. I wanted to be Tarbaby. I wanted people to become stuck in my ideas, so you couldn’t get away from them. That’s all there is to it.

Thek began as a painter, and painting is a medium to which he constantly returns. His paintings on canvas are filled with a gestural exuberance and iconoclastic sassiness that block easy categorization. Thek’s unwillingness to settle down, dig in and get tagged hasn’t done much to solidify his reputation as a painter. (Stylistic and thematic virtuosity fly in the face of the American art market’s passion for genrefication.) In a climate that encourages absolute critical nomenclature to advance careers predicated on visual and/or thematic consistency, Thek’s high-spirited disregard for esthetic conformation appears wantonly subversive.

Another factor that tends to isolate Thek’s work is a humorous irreverence, characterized by titles (frequently included in the composition) and subject matter satirically undercutting and commenting on paint handling and composition (or the reverse). Whether he is picking up where Johns’ number series left off (Thek’s series begins with II), suggesting profanely tender religious conjunctions (Jesus in the Arms of Krishna, 1980), celebrating childhood media memories (Bambi Growing, Bambi’s Father Up on His Bluff, 1979), or honoring prosaic still-life conventions (Tomato, 1974), Thek always brings a highly charged expressiveness to his canvases.

The paintings on newspaper are cooler, not so impacted, more impatient asides than emphatic declaratives. In their graphic economy and limited palette, they offer an experiential immediacy that Thek’s other work forestalls. In their casual, notational elegance, the newspaper paintings have as unmannered and direct a feel as a firm handshake.

For a recent show (1980), “A Lot of Little Paintings,” Thek turned down the gallery lights, spotlit an extravagant orchid plant ringed by delicate gilt chairs, attached goose-necked museum lamps to the paintings, and stuck punch-tape labels on sham gold frames. The effect was as glamorously artificial as Marlene Dietrich’s platinum Afro in Blonde Venus, and almost as outrageous. But it was also a delicately sensual reminder that paintings do not have to be lit as if they are about to be combed for microbes; that they unfold by degrees rather than in the white light of an instant. As is usual with Thek, the message was a massage—at once invulnerably assured and naturally humble.

The Artist elaborates on his exhibition strategy and the limitations of self-evaluation: I wanted the room to look good for people. I was tired of going into galleries and feeling like I was in a lineup. They’re all so brightly lit and there’s no place to sit down, and the gallery people are all peering through their windows—what a hostile environment. So it seemed the first thing to do was to humanize the environment; then you can look at a work of art. And, of course, you do that by turning down the lights, giving people some chairs to sit on, and not having the art restricted in any way.

Bambi [the subject of one of the “Little Paintings”] has always been one of my favorite movies, especially because of the voice of Bambi’s mother: so mature and so resonant and so patient; no shrillness, none of the virago, no bitchiness—just a wonderful woman’s voice, restful and soothing. And Bambi’s wonderment at his first rainstorm, do you remember, when the rain drops from leaf to leaf? It’s absolutely glorious; it’s better than the infant Jesus in a way. It certainly has hit a lot of people. Billions of people have seen it and are in love with him.

The paintings [in the “Little Paintings” show] were about theology, psychology, philosophy, art, and, hopefully in all of them, humor. Though, in some, I got caught in beauty. I thought, “Let’s just make this one be beautiful, not have anything to do with anything else!” I frequently get up on a stupid high horse of fright and say, “Only the perfection of the stuff I do in Ponza, where I have the time and patience and peace of mind to devote myself to a certain ‘finish’ is really valid.” But it’s not true, because one little line or humorous sketch on newspaper may be more valuable. How hard or how well I painted is not important. I sometimes think of technique as one more brick in the wall. You know, Pink Floyd. And that, in fact, is what it is, so you’d have to be a fool to be limited by that.

The Artist declares his preferences and prejudices: My favorite art is regional art. One of the things that drives me crazy is the “international style”; I find that so boring. I’d hate going to Sicily and finding the local kids doing stuff out of Nancy Hoffman or Pace. What’s happening in America now is just a lot of slapdash, tomfoolery chic. Just because, traditionally speaking, an artist is frequently the contemplative, removed from the world and devoting himself to an idealized and perfected image, doesn’t mean that art can’t be very much from the world as well. So, I believe in regional art. You do what has to be done when you’re there.

The Artist states his position: A lot of people say that I give them too much, that the cake I come up with is simply too rich. There are a lot of people, especially in this country, who are totally dedicated to art as sensory training—which I do not disagree with at all—but I think that myth and literature can also improve the senses. A lot of people get very angry if you’re this most verboten of all things—literary; God forbid you should be intelligent. I don’t think they understand how much they limit and how much they cut out. From what my knowledge of history and people in my culture has told me, the sensual life to which they are aspiring is a bore and doomed. Now, that may be old-fashioned Catholicism, but it sounds like what every religion tells me, or what the voice of reason tells me.

Richard Flood writes on contemporary art and popular culture.



1. Ingmar Bergman, Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960, p. xxii.

2. H. L. Mencken, The Vintage Mencken (gathered by Alistair Cooke), New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p. 146.

3. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, New York: Grove Press, 1958, p. 98.

4. Mencken, op. cit.. p. 2.

5. Suzanne Delehanty, Paul Thek/Processions, Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art. University of Pennsylvania. 1977, p. 3. This catalogue for Thek’s only environmental installation in the United States includes the most extensive documentation of the artist’s work available. Its meticulous chronology and Ms. Delehanty’s insightful analysis of Thek’s art were most helpful in the preparation of this article.

6. Robert Pincus-Witten, “Thek’s Tomb. . . Absolute Fetishism,” Artforum, November 1967, p. 24.

7. Robert Pincus-Witten, “Paul Thek, Stable Gallery,” Artforum, May 1969, p. 64.

8. Other long-term Thek collaborators include Robert Beuys, Michele Collison, Wahundra Fitzgerald, Edwin Klein, Lily Malloch, Charles Shuts, and Ildiko Van Viczian.