New York

Paul Thek

In colors so bright as to be almost garish, the rough-hewn brushstrokes of Paul Thek’s “Newspaper Paintings,” 1981–83—featuring sprays of yellow polka dots, fields of pink, and slashes of electric blue—allow us, to varying degrees, to see the even type on the New York Times pages on which they were made. Here shown collectively for the first time, these works comprise a discrete series within a career-long body of paintings using newspaper as a support. Thek’s early works, made in the late 1960s, involved rendering isolated images (a diver, a seascape, flowers) on grounds of opaque color; he then worked toward a form of abstraction centered on the play of surface treatments.

Unlike Thek’s Vietnam-era sculptures and installations, such as “Technological Reliquaries,” 1964–67 (hunks of meat rendered in wax and housed in Plexiglas cases) or The Tomb–Death of a Hippie, 1967 (a pink ziggurat containing a wax effigy of the artist), these paintings do not embody the violence of their times as much as they turn it back on an oppressor via aggressively gestural marks that serve to censor and thereby undermine the symbolic, political, and corporate power structures referenced by the articles they cover. In a quote from 1981 displayed at the entrance to the show, Thek claims: “Here in ‘civilization’ I want only to do bad painting to shock and hurt them”—“them” presumably being urban sophisticates. (The artist was pitting this “bad” work, made in New York, against the painting he did on Ponza, in Italy, which he called “good” and “eternal.”) Indeed, his expressionistic mark making comes across as a mode of attack that renders its targets powerless.

In each work, the paint obscures the underlying text, as if the current state of the world (or at least the media’s presentation thereof) were no more readable than an assortment of juvenile shapes and crude smears. In Untitled (Five Blue Arcs), ca. 1981, glimpsed headlines point to a culture fraying at its edges (MORE CHURCHES QUIETLY FORGING INDEPENDENT PATHS, HAIG ASSERTS SOVIET WANES SPIRITUALLY) alongside those that suggest more banal topics (BIRMINGHAM BUS SERVICE TO RESUME) and an ad for luxury silk as crisp as the “finest French pastry.” By blotting out most of its content, Thek highlights the peculiarities of the newspaper page as an arena in which news, religion, and capitalism achieve a kind of equilibrium.

If, as Hogarth famously contended, S-shaped lines signify life, while straight lines represent death, Thek’s gestures in Untitled (Green and Orange S-Curve), 1983, can be seen as a vital counterpoint to the parallel lines of text beneath. Similar in sentiment, the titular strokes of the show’s pièce de résistance, Untitled (Five Vertical Red Lines), ca. 1981, seem to rip through the center of the canvas like fingernail scratches—though it’s not clear which surface (pictorial or textual) is being punctured. Although often seeming aleatory, Thek’s application of paint feels, at such moments, strikingly controlled. Similarly, two of the four works in the back gallery offer cubist compositions more indebted to Picasso and Braque (albeit in hot ’80s colors) than the Twomblyesque works elsewhere.

In the late ’80s, after making the work included in this exhibition, Thek began incorporating melancholic or ominous phrases (time is a river; the face of god) into his newspaper paintings, scraping them into the pigment, reflecting, perhaps, a sense of impending mortality. Those two works, both from 1988, the year of his aids-related death, show that the artist’s subject remained consistent despite a changing formal approach. Whether taking on the weight of the world or reflecting on personal experience, Thek was a sensitive communicator of the horror and pathos of his times.

Kyle Bentley