PRINT January 2011


Paul Thek, The Painter Paints, 1985, watercolor and pencil on paper, 18 x 24".


FOR PAUL THEK, painting was a both a vocation and a discipline. “We must discover WHY we are really painting, really WHY . . . painters are priests . . . IT IS A GLORIOUS JOB + WE . . . TRY ALWAYS HARDER + ALWAYS WE KNOW IT IS NEVER ENOUGH . . . ,” he wrote in a 1973 letter to painter Franz Deckwitz. While most of Thek’s sculptural work and installations were created on commission, painting was the activity that he pursued consistently, irrespective of a destination. As R. H. Quaytman observed in the 1995 catalogue for Thek’s first big retrospective, “The Wonderful World That Almost Was” at Rotterdam’s Witte de With, both his paintings and his notebook writings are “disarmingly devoid of artistry.” To Thek, who believed that the only antidote to pain lay in execution and beauty, the skills and sleights of hand implied by “artistry” were beside the point. THE PAINTER PAINTS, he affirmed in the top right-hand corner of a gorgeous 1985 painting, titled after that scrawled phrase, that depicts the portrait of an unnamed man propped up beside a Manhattan apartment window.

This image—the city through the window—is central to Thek’s art. His early-1970s painting Untitled (cityscape with twin towers), on view in a recent exhibition at New York’s Alexander and Bonin gallery installed in conjunction with “Diver,” is one of a series of works he made at a friend’s Prince Street loft, observing the impact of the World Trade Center towers on the New York skyline. Fifteen years later, in the late ’80s, Thek returned to painting city views from the vantage of his own East Village apartment. Loosely rendered in blacks and purples with splashes of yellow and blue, the ten nine-by-twelve-inch acrylics that constitute Untitled (cityscapes), 1988, depict slices of rooftops and skylines that are by turns energized, dismal, open, and ominous. The paintings exist as a kind of diary—each frame enacting a confluence of light, weather, and mood. Throughout his career, Thek decried the “international style” of contemporary art, favoring what was local and regional. When he was confined by illness at the end of his life, his worldview became limited to what could be seen outside his window. Wistful and deliberate, these cityscapes captured the “local conditions” of Thek’s inner life as precisely as the geometric lines with which he traced building shapes against the sky.

In the mid-’80s, Thek produced a series of modest proposals for works of public art that would not be realized. “Diver” includes twelve drawings from these projects, shown here for the first time. Tilted Arc and Revised Arc, both 1985, whimsically suggest that Richard Serra’s unpopular sculpture, instead of being dismantled, could be transformed into a petting zoo! Dismissed at the time as nutty, desperate, and at best “therapeutic” (to quote Richard Flood, one of Thek’s most devoted supporters), twenty-five years later the drawings feel more like a testament to Thek’s unwavering belief in gentleness and human scale. As Flood wrote after Thek’s death, “Paul’s contribution was all about modesty and the power of one; it is important because it was responsive to the world and contra to the cynicism of the worldly.”

Chris Kraus is a writer and critic based in Los Angeles.