PRINT January 2011


Paul Thek in his East Third Street studio with the “Dead Hippie,” New York, 1967. Photo: Peter Hujar.


I MOVED TO NEW YORK CITY in late 1966 with drawings of light pieces that I dreamed up while waiting at a taxi stand in Boston for someone to jump into my cab. Many people were doing sheet-metal stuff on the Bowery, and I, too, had a little sheet-metal thing that I needed for a light piece (which eventually sold to Kasper König). Well, no one, it seemed, would do the job because it was so small they didn’t want to bother. Finally someone says, “Such-and-such Bowery, second floor, Mr. Biederman.”

Sigmund Biederman, age 78–84, was the kind of person who made New York great. “Sure, kid, sure—I work with a lotta artists, Robert Lobe, Billy Apple, Paul Thek—”

“Paul Thek!” I shouts, remembering a single photo in Arts Magazine of Hippopotamus Poison [1965] (the “I, Sylvia Kraus . . .” piece). To me it was pure, unadorned meat of monumental form (this piece lacks all fetish adornment). I, as a sculptor, was very impressed that someone was attempting the daunting challenge of realistic sculpture. One didn’t just take a photo and trace it out—this was the ancient challenge.

“Oh, you know him?”

“Well, no. I know his work.”

“Oh,” he says, walking over to a ’30s pay phone—looks at the wall, drops a dime, dials the number, and hands me the phone.

Wow. While it’s ringing, I’m thinking, I can’t believe this is the guy who did those Thek boxes. This would have never happened in Boston.

In Boston I searched every page of every art mag every month for work that was avoiding the Minimal trend. I had been heavily influenced by the Hard Edge Formalism of Boston artist Truman Egleston in the late ’50s and early ’60s and had done Abstract Expressionism from “The Organic” in ’58 to “Reductionary Hard Edge” in ’64 and ’65 in painting and sculpture. I could see it was leading to the Ad Reinhardt Tunnel and had come to believe that the Reductionist solution was fostered by scientific methods and concerns rather than social issues. These were the years of the Vietnam Mistake, and I thought Thek’s imagery more relevant than Ad Reinhardt’s. There weren’t many of us around trying to develop an alternative to the Minimal answer. Thek was offering Hot Imagery, where I was offering Crooked Lines.

Suddenly, he was on the phone. I explained the situation, and who I was. He asked where I was staying—723 East Sixth Street between Avenues C and D.

“Oh, I’m on Third above Slug’s between B and C. Have you ever molded castings?”

“Just plaster.”

“Well, maybe you can assist me.” And so we set a date for Monday.

The next time I saw Thek was in Bellevue Hospital. I was a patient, having been hit by a car while crossing Allen Street.

Nine days later we started. Thek was a happy-go-lucky guy with a positive, generous attitude about everything. He loved to laugh and always called me Little Fella. Part beatnik, part hippie, 6'1", 175 lbs., thinning blond hair—everybody liked him.

My contact with Thek was occasional, precious, and brief. I worked for Thek parts of two or three days a week for maybe five or six weeks. We never really socialized, as I was a workaholic and had no phone—and no money. We spent time at his Oakleyville shack on Fire Island once or twice. Sometimes I would see him when I ate lunch at Mo’s Lunch on C between Sixth and Seventh. Sometimes we ate with Elaine Sturtevant.

At some point Channel 5 (WNEW) called and invited Thek to appear on The David Susskind Show with Frank Lincoln Viner, so Peter Hujar and I and others went up for the taping.

After completing the work and show, in what seemed like no time at all, puff he was gone—to Italy, to fulfill his Fulbright Fellowship, a very desirable two-year thing, I think, giving up his beautiful top-floor, four-room apartment. This loss was permanent, for his time in New York after that was always as a visitor.

In the spring of ’68, dealers from West Germany arrived en masse and scheduled fall shows with many younger New York artists. My dealer, Richard Bellamy, urged all of his guys—Mark di Suvero, Walter De Maria, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and myself—to go. I was scheduled to open at Galerie Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne in November and was provided a studio to make the work. It worked out that a Thek opening was also in November at the Galerie M. E. Thelen in Essen, West Germany, where he showed cast-bronze mice. Thek was more than a little surprised to see me. I suggested that he come to Cologne, as I had a space and was staying with Zwirner’s secretary, Birgit Riedel. So he came to Cologne. When I left, Thek and Riedel became close.

Thek returned stateside, as he called it, now and then, and stayed with Ann Wilson. He’d call and we’d get together. One time we went to see a Peter Allen dinner show, as they were close friends.

View of “Paul Thek: A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress: Objects to Theoretically Wear, Carry, Pull or Wave,” Galerie M. E. Thelen, Essen, West Germany, 1968.

One time he tracked me down at old roommate Peter Bramley’s (see obit in the New York Times) Cloud Studio on Second Avenue and Fifth Street, arriving wearing a crazy mask and removing it when he said, “Surprise!”

It worked out that in ’72 I was invited to Documenta. Thek arrived in New York and called a matter of a few days before my departure. He always had perfect timing. So he stayed and worked in my small loft at 76 Jefferson Street and got to know everyone there.

At some point in the late ’70s or early ’80s he called and came over. I was doing well at the time and asked if he still owned the “Dead Hippie” piece. He said it came back from Europe and the shipper called and told him to come pick it up, and he forgot to pick it up. So I asked him if he knew who owned the “I, Sylvia Kraus” hippo piece? He said he had it in storage and that it had been damaged in shipping and couldn’t be sold, ’cause he didn’t want to fix it. It was in sad shape. But I knew the secrets and how to restore it because pigmented beeswax always had a fresh look whether old or new. I gave him $25K and, eventually, after his passing, restored it and gave it to MoMA.

The girls loved Paul and he was very close with them, and all those relationships were sustained continually. I never knew Paul to have an ongoing partnership with any single male or female. He was sexually active but a loner. A true free spirit. We never really discussed sexuality. He accepted my thing, and I accepted his thing.

One day, the girls called and said, “Come quick!” I ran up to the hospital. The girls had to tell me what he was saying, as I couldn’t understand a word. He was cracking jokes.

Four people have had a dramatic influence on my work and life: Truman Egleston, Paul Thek, Ivan Karp, and Richard Bellamy.

Thek influenced me in two ways.

Firstly, business. Around mid-February 1967, Thek suggested that it was the best time of year to visit and meet dealers. The scene was dead in February and dealers were in a planning mode for the coming fall season.

So I marched a few “Linear” pieces up to Castelli to meet Castelli’s top lieutenant, universally acknowledged as the most powerful man in modern art circa 1966, Ivan Karp (aka OK Harris). Karp was open and wonderful but said the fall schedule was filled and suggested that Virginia Dwan should see my “Crooked Linear” pieces. Dwan represented Carl Andre and Arakawa and, a little later, De Maria. I realized my work was rather antithetical to her aesthetic and so asked, “Would you call her up?” “Sure,” says Karp, picks up the phone and lines it up. So I walked down to Fifty-Seventh Street.

Well, Virginia Dwan was also open and accommodating. Carl Andre was there at the time and I was very nervous. Virginia at some point asked, “What are those ‘Crooked Lines’ painted with?”

“A rubber paint I developed.”

“Oh,” she replied. “Isn’t Dick Bellamy doing a rubber show?” (aka the second From Arp to Artschwager” annual, in spring 1967). So Dwan called Bellamy, and Richard Bellamy became my dealer for thirty-one years. This is the perfect example of the Thek effect.

Thek and I discussed the art business extensively, and I benefited from all those old discussions at the Cedar Tavern. Thek’s rules for art-business success were:

1. It’s best to be a big fish in a small pond—the dealer will focus on you.

2. Be in group shows—because there is no major commitment by the dealer or the artist, and groups are best for networking.

3. Have all work done before committing to a show.

4. If a dealer offers you a show, it means he wants to buy something half price.

5. Stay away from stipends (dealers fronting money on unmade work)—it breeds arguments and bitterness.

6. Watch out for dealers who must sell to survive—they get desperate. Realize that when you get a dealer, you get the dealer’s enemies.

7. Write everything down—have loans signed.

8. Never violate the “keep one” rule—don’t sell everything.

Secondly, technique. Thek influenced me permanently by his example. By his attempting the perfection of His Ideal by using patient analytical methods of experimentation to achieve it.

Finally, I am forever indebted to Thek for placing in my consciousness the realization that idealism is unavoidable.

Neil Jenney is a New York–based artist.

Excerpted from Neil Jenney’s unpublished manuscript “Me and the Art Biz.”