Paul Thek

Should the artist be a man of the world? Paul Thek came up in the ’50s and ’60s, when it was hard to answer “no,” when “avant-garde artist” became a profession, an idea that repulsed him, Wrestling with this question in 1979, Thek wrote to a priest, “I am OK, still trying to be ‘an artist’ in the secular world . . . as you know, the world is the world, very ‘worldly,’ etc, etc.” He longed for recognition, but had little respect for posturing or artistic orthodoxies, retreating to Europe—and even, late in his life, to a monastery—for long periods.

Curator and critic Richard Flood called Thek’s career one of the great failures of contemporary art, and not-so-famous artists may cherish the nobility he confers on obscurity. But some famous artists (Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Kiki Smith) seem to favor Thek as well, for providing an alternative to the abstraction/Pop/Minimalism bloodline, a source more idiosyncratic than Oedipal. Like Ray Johnson, Thek was an artist’s artist—an insider rather than an outsider—despite the naive painting style he affected.

If Thek’s wobbling fortunes were at least partly due to his own ambivalence about his place in the world as an artist, he rescued his work by turning sour grapes into a bittersweet awareness of the temporary vanity of life and art. For his best-known piece, The Tomb—Death of a Hippie, 1967, he cast his own body to represent the death of the bohemian artist; destroyed years ago, it is eerie to see photographs of The Tomb today, in light of Thek’s real death (from AIDS in 1988). Similarly, Thek’s famous “meat pieces” of the ’60s—haunting, pinkly mottled body parts made from wax—insist on the body and its fragility in Minimalism’s cool milieu.

The heavy irony of his sculptural pieces is rendered buoyant in the Arts Club of Chicago exhibition of paintings and notebooks from 1970 to 1988, the first solo showing of his work in this country since his death. Thek’s paintings and drawings are purposefully modest; unfortunately, the larger works, hung like any painting in a museum, look, well, like any painting in a museum, and less memorable than many. The most successful pieces are those situated in specific contexts, such as the aptly named “swimming pool” installation in which small, simply rendered green and blue paintings hang at waist level on three walls (recreating Thek’s last gallery show in 1987). Simultaneously cute and solemn, they present almost illustrational images like Untitled (Bunnies on Stairs), ca. 1984, as well as abstracted patterns requiring the explanations of their painted, cursive captions, as in the allover white flecks of Dust, 1988. The paintings’ low position injects idealized and impersonal museum habits with a playful humanity: Adults are forced to bend, sit, or even lie down to see the works, reminding us of the bodies hosting our eyes.

The other striking group in the exhibition (shown in 1980 as “A Lot of Little Paintings“) consists of eighteen closely hung paintings in oil and acrylic, in cheap frames, each lit by a picture lamp. These ”bad“ paintings range wildly in style from serene landscape (Ponza Agave, 1975) to parodically garish abstraction (Space Age Pattern Painting, 1980) to vulgar sight gag (Bread and Buttocks, 1979–80). It’s as if Jim Shaw had secretly made all the ”Thrift Store Paintings" by himself. Again, it’s the grouping that works here; individual paintings are rarely quite pretty or clever enough.

Surprisingly, the twenty or so pages that Thek’s opened notebooks reveal stand most independently. The drawings—among them, a birthday cake lantern and a pumpkin pyramid—are complex but sure, and often touching. Thek frequently turned from the art world to the other world, and the notebooks refer to both Catholicism and a broader mysticism, including prayers alongside whimsical, prosaic symbols of birth and death.

This art charms; still, in freely confessing their smallness, the paintings and notebooks (like the ephemeral sculptures) bear the marks of Thek’s wavering faith in art’s afterlife. And unlike Beuys, whom he admired, Thek didn’t construct an explicit, public mythology to animate what he left behind—only a cultish, vaguely antiheroic reputation. Adding up the odds and ends of Thek’s surviving objects and the scraps of his remembered self, we may find their sum less than adequate to an artistic life fully lived, a conclusion he himself anticipated. In this sense, Thek’s work reveals something of what it means to be an artist in this world—what it means to be anyone at all.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributing to Artforum.