PRINT January 2011


Paul Thek, Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965, wax, painted wood, Plexiglas, 14 x 17 x 17". From the series “Technological Reliquaries,” 1964–67.


“I DIDN’T KNOW HOW I would feel about it”: The thought, ready-made for Wittgenstein to parse, kept looping in my mind, on the subway, before I even got to the Whitney Museum, where the elevator doors opened at the fourth floor onto a milky, unblinking ghost face, obviously an Andy Warhol Screen Test of Paul Thek.

But I suppose I did know some of what I would feel: the heavy, awkward pull of a faraway world full of vanished people, including Paul, whose lives had rubbed up against mine; regret over things we didn’t see coming; a melancholic determination to walk through all the rooms. I knew I would try to assimilate the things I’d never seen into some kind of “revised appreciation”; that I would gaze at the familiar in search of distracting details, anything that would banish the weight of time and memory.

Inevitably, I gravitated to the Meat Pieces, the beeswax body parts, the slabs of fat and muscle and sinew, the bubbles of simulated tissue scrunched between them, encased in geometric glass and metal cases; the chunk of severed thighbone or whatever it was oozing bilious resin and sprouting nylon hairs; the congealed goo of viscera lodged in a livid green-yellow Plexiglas pylon as sharp-edged and sleek as an architectural drawing; the neck stump with vertebrae and slit-open stomach festooned with gigantic flies: surreal forensic residue, guaranteed to frighten the crap out of people or maybe just remind them that, however precise and well ordered the containers they pass their lives in may be, there’s this bloody mess gurgling inside them to contend with, stuff that might be living now but one day will most definitely be dead and rotting.

I’d forgotten the bleak whimsy of the dulled electric green and purple enamel coating some of the “flesh,” the rancid psychedelia and butterfly wings of the artist’s self-portrait/death mask, the varicolored hand sporting a big round ring, extruding from a plinth the hand’s sickly colors have slithered over; forgotten the chairs and potty-holed boxes with their hilariously “sadomasochistic” leather straps, designed to imprison the head; forgotten the hovering assemblages redolent of impacted debris, the stuffed buzzards and ravens hanging like dead sentinels from the ceiling.

I hadn’t forgotten the humanoid raw brisket of wax ligaments and blood vessels lodged in a Warhol Brillo Box, or the precise concentric rings around the strange valve piercing the wooden crate’s Plexiglas bottom: How could anyone forget that—what I’d always called an adults-only Cornell box?

There were other things, too many for me to truly see, as the past was devouring the present and pushing me out of the museum—bronze castings; paintings on yellowed newspaper pages of flaming objects, a turtle, cherries, prunes, a dinosaur; many blue paintings of an island, several of a pipe-smoking dwarf; terrariums clogged with clay mushrooms, seashells, desiccated mulch, and onions (how do they preserve onions for forty years?); late, splashy monochromes (or near monochromes) with declamatory messages like AFFLICT THE COMFORTABLE COMFORT THE AFFLICTED, DILIGENCE, TIME IS A RIVER ; notebook pages; masterly landscape drawings—and two Fishman sculptures, latex casts of the artist’s body covered with fish, like air bags floating him up out of water.

A docent was explaining the works to a klatch of visitors. She spoke of Paul’s ambivalent Catholicism, his morbid evocation of psychedelic hippie times, allusions to the Vietnam War in his work, the perpetual tension between asceticism and carnality. I overheard nothing I could argue with, even though she was verbally excavating an era I’d lived through and, of necessity, reducing it to a medley of keynotes and shorthand phrases, for an audience to which it was utterly foreign, historical, peculiar. “Paul Thek died in ridiculous poverty”—no, she didn’t say that, I didn’t hear that. Almost certainly I didn’t hear that. And I didn’t know how I would feel about it if I had.

Gary Indiana’s most recent book is Last Seen Entering the Biltmore: Plays, Short Fiction, Poems 1975–2010 (Semiotext[e], 2010). A collaborative book with the late Louise Bourgeois, To Whom It May Concern, will appear later this year.