Paul Thek

In the late 1960s and the ’70s, Paul Thek, the American artist to whom Susan Sontag dedicated her book Against Interpretation (1966), seemed to be everywhere. He had exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1969) and at Moderna Museet in Stockholm (1971), and his work was included in Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972, in the Venice Biennale in 1976 and 1980, and in the big “Westkunst” show in Cologne in 1981. Then his career went quieter. In 1988, Thek died of AIDS, but just four years later Mike Kelley would write, “Now he has suddenly been taken up again by historians. Why? The obvious reason is that so many new artworks look like Paul Thek’s.” He remains an artist’s artist, and so it is fitting that “Paul Thek: Werkschau im Kontext zeitgenössischer Kunst” (Paul Thek in the Context of Contemporary Art)—which will travel to the Falckenberg Collection, Hamburg, May 30–September 14—combines a retrospective of Thek’s work with recent pieces by some of the artists he has influenced.

Some three hundred works were shown at ZKM, among them several of the elaborate installations (displayed mainly through documentation) that Thek called “Processions,” and which he often altered over the course of their exhibition. Better known are the “Technological Reliquaries” first shown in 1964 at New York’s Stable Gallery: strictly geometrical Plexiglas cases with unpleasantly realistic-looking pieces of meat made of wax, a clear reply to the cases and boxes of the Minimalists that during the same period were making their elegant claims to eternity—and thus also an answer to their break from tradition and the “technologization” of art. “Working within our given cultural-theological heritage, I find much greater public interest and involvement; perhaps one of the functions of art is Revival,” Thek wrote in 1970.

The Tomb, 1967, is a pyramid construction in which lies a clothed wax effigy of the artist surrounded by pillows and glasses. This alarmingly convincing corpse appeared in other installations, for instance in Ark, Pyramid, 1972, made for Documenta 5. These installations no longer exist but are documented in photographs; the body, after being transported several times, was disposed of by a shipping firm when Thek didn’t pay the bill on time. Besides the outstanding documentation of the “processions” and the restaging of part of one of them—Processions/The Artists Co-op, 1969, an environment consisting of chairs, tables, newspapers, empty bottles, and the remains of food, shown originally at the Stedelijk Museum—it is above all the paintings, drawings, and small objects that fascinate. Landscapes, animals, and simple objects are painted in acrylic on newsprint, seemingly with ease and with love. They are fragile, almost seductive. Thek was not only a great installation artist; he was also a brilliant painter.

Staging desire as well as decline and decay, Thek insisted not only on the performative but also on transfiguration and the veneration of art—thereby making a mockery of the maxims of the Minimalist and Conceptual art of the ’70s. Indeed, if Thek has left us anything, it is the knowledge of transience and an almost playful approach to it. Works such as Kelley’s Kandor Con, 2000, Jon Kessler’s media-reflexive war-imaging machine The Palace at 4 a.m., 2005–2007, and the lavish Floß (Raft), 2004, by Kai Althoff and Robert Elfgens, frame this grand exhibition of works by Thek, reflecting affinities between the late artist and many working today.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.