PRINT January 2011


Paul Thek, Untitled (Dwarf Parade Table), 1969, wood, plaster, eggs, photographs, drawings, plastic, ceramic plates, glass, metal, gum, latex, paint, taxidermic dog, fabric, chairs, 34 1/2 x 92 1/2 x 29 3/4". Installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.


DEATH HANGS HEAVY over Paul Thek’s oeuvre, from the morbidity of the early reliquaries to the stillness of the late seascapes. It was present long before Thek was diagnosed with aids. Almost always it is coupled with a sense of religiosity that, for better and worse, comes with imperatives utterly different from those of career, consistency, and well-being. Something similar drove Robert Smithson’s early work, but Smithson was able not only to bring this to bear on the framework of the art world but also to transpose it into a systematic aesthetic. Thek’s art, on the other hand, resists outright comprehension. His retrospective at the Whitney Museum opens with wall text that is an extract from his brilliant “Teaching Notes: 4-Dimensional Design”: “Design something to sell on the street corner. Design something to sell to the government. Design something to put on an altar. . . .” It’s hard to fathom why the same artist also would feel impelled to write the entry “Get over yourself” over and over again in his notebook.

The show is organized chronologically, and since Thek migrated from New York to Europe and back, it is also keyed to place. This presentation reveals the artist to have been highly sensitive to—and influenced by—his geographic and aesthetic context. His “Technological Reliquaries,” for example, come off as missiles aimed at glitzy Upper East Side apartments. Then cut to Europe, where Thek formed collectives to produce sprawling ritual installations in a post-Beuysian vein. Cut back to New York circa 1976, where Thek is now painting small pictures, directly inspired (as the curators note) by Neil Jenney and by a pictorialist zeitgeist pervading the downtown scene at the time. While the material feel, especially the grimy surfaces, of Thek’s work can come off as repugnant, the real challenge for anyone who takes his art seriously may be wrestling with its anomalous character. Thek’s obsession with death runs not only against the grain of an ever more secularized art world but also against the wholesale logic of cultural instrumentalization in which everything is subject to a financial calculus. It is in this spirit that Thek’s oeuvre confronts viewers with a glimpse of mortality.

John Miller is an artist based in New York and Berlin.