New York

Joe Brainard and Paul Thek

Multiple Galleries

In my criticism I have tried to avoid merely gratuitous observations—for reasons that are evident, not the least of them being the futile vanity inherent in calling shots. Still, I would like to record my negative response to the recent exhibitions of the work of Joe Brainard and Paul Thek if only because their present offerings may render doubtful the claims which have already been put forth in defense of these artists. Joe Brainard, some four or five years back, if I remember correctly, attracted the free spirits easily moved by the surrealizing poetics of accumulations of cheap manufactured religious gimcracks. Brainard assembled pious picture cards and poppit rosary beads with a neat eye for ironical pictorial contrasts and a perfect sense of bad taste, a taste which had grown out of the earlier Pop campaign and which was central to the Hippie and Love Child’s refusal to judge or be judged. I do not mean that Brainard was a Hippie or a Love Child—I mean only that his work reflected the grimy neutrality central to that weltanschauung. The assemblages were curiously poor—I mean in their emotional connotations. Their gaudy poverty, heightened by snippets of explicit and unrepentant sexuality, achieved a kind of courageous pomp such as one feels before a Saint’s Day banner carried through the streets of Little Italy. I add that the Brainard assemblages found enthusiasts among some of the most subtle minds I know. I see his more recent pictures as manicured versions of flower studies and pattern-making of such meager achievement that even a girl’s seminarian would forswear them. Any “Rag Industry” textile designer could surpass the current Brainard handcuffed, provided of course that he had been primed into believing that his croquis and colorings were somehow even remotely connected with the world of art. One need not add how blatantly these trivial poonah paintings relive the floral silkscreens of Andy Warhol, works which appear to be urbane and intellectual feats in the face of such paraplegic knockoffs.

Paul Thek has had his apologists too—among whom I must figure prominently as I had greeted two earlier exhibitions with a partisanship bordering on the fanatic. As postscript, then, to these “bibliographic listings,” let me speak of the present work, a plasticine colored rubber cast of the artist himself, “swimming” so to speak amidst a school of dun-colored rubber fish and tied to the branches of the ailanthus tree in the backyard of the Stable Gallery. Perhaps Thek will not recognize that this noxious bit of self-parading is an entirely depleted descendent of the Gods of Olympus, a hamstrung amalgam of Poseidon and Apollo. Perhaps he will admit, though, that the body cast is but a feeble dependency on Johns and Segal in the immediate past and Bruce Nauman in the immediate present. That Paul Thek may have been so indifferently spaced out as of late may in fact be the gross message of the present flying figure. If this is so then I suppose I was right about Thek’s Tomb, “The Death of a Hippie” of two seasons ago. In terms of that earlier work’s just expression of the waning of the love movement nothing could have been more touching or well conceived. I opined that it was “a summation and an adieu” to art. The present exhibition seems, in fact, a definitive goodbye. Thek is keeping a nostalgic scrapbook of his departure by snapping polaroids of the stray curious visitor.

Robert Pincus-Witten