PRINT January 2011


Paul Thek, Warrior’s Arm, 1967, wax, paint, leather, metal, wood, resin, Plexiglas, 9 1/2 x 39 x 9 1/2". From the series “Technological Reliquaries,” 1964–67.


AS AN ART STUDENT, I had seen a few reproductions of works from Paul Thek’s “Technological Reliquaries” series, 1964–67, and was quite taken with them. But it was the catalogue for Thek’s “Processions” exhibition at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1977 that really turned my head around and made me rethink my sculptural practice. I was already interested in performative sculpture; the artists Joseph Beuys, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Tetsumi Kudo, in particular, interested me because of their embrace of poetic mythmaking and their use of everyday materials. Thek’s abandonment of the tropes of American Minimalism was a welcome surprise (though it must be stressed that his take on that movement was definitely perverse). No longer did he produce discrete artworks; instead, old works were constantly recycled, added to, and reconstituted as he moved from location to location and addressed the works anew. His exhibitions became large-scale environments, produced on-site with the poorest of materials and incorporating found objects, gifts, and the residue of their own production. Like the ball rolled by a dung beetle, these installations grew in size and became increasingly heterogeneous as they progressed, absorbing new materials along the way. The authorship of these works is, interestingly, open to question, since many of them were produced communally.

Thek’s use of lowly newspaper as a construction material became emblematic of the developmental nature of his work. He began to paint on newspaper pages, leaving the newsprint, and often the date, exposed. Less clearly focused than On Kawara’s daily painting regime, Thek’s recourse to painting on newspaper nevertheless points toward the passage of time as an important consideration in his practice. The off-the-cuff nature of these paintings, which often consist of a simply rendered iconic image, was also refreshing—and could be seen as anticipating the “Bad Painting” movement of the later 1970s. His modus operandi here is also reminiscent of Jonathan Borofsky’s pairing of an index of chronological development (his endless counting) with doodles, common objects, and consciously completed artworks.

It is this mixture of free-associative word- and image play, complex material usage, and formal and conceptual rigor that makes me appreciate Thek’s work so much—despite the fact that I am put off by its mystical overtones. I’m truly pleased that he is now being reconsidered. I haven’t seen the retrospective currently up at the Whitney, and I wonder how the installations in particular are being presented. Thek’s work from the late ’60s and ’70s seems especially dependent on the artist’s personal involvement relative to presentation and reaction to place. His practice strikes me as being eminently un–museum friendly. In fact, one of his work’s great strengths, because of its mutable and nonauthorial nature, is how much it challenges the museum’s preconceptions of what an artwork should be.

Mike Kelley is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.