The year is 1964. The place, New York. The artwork? A series of realistically-gory meat sculptures, made of resin and placed in a series of Plexiglas vitrines. Meant as a critique of minimalism and its squeamishly hermetic attributes, Paul Thek's Technological Reliquaries (1964–1966) were thought, at the time, to be hugely radical. According to the attendants at UCLA's Hammer Museum -- the third (and only West Coast) museum to host Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective -- the radical nature of these pieces tends to be lost on many present-day museum visitors.
Apparently, most people brush through the first two rooms of the exhibit, where the Reliquaries are situated. In all honesty, the sculptures are pretty gross, hunks of fatty flesh trapped in transparent, rectangular boxes, with the occasional fly thrown in for effect. But for those of us with even the shallowest knowledge of what the capital-A art world was like in the 1960s, Thek's work is heartbreaking.
Moving through the beginning of the exhibit at a slower pace reveals Reliquaries like Untitled (1966–1967) and Hand with Ring (1966–1967), transitional pieces that point toward Thek's next major gallery show, The Tomb, at Eleanor Ward Gallery in 1967. Untitled is a cast of Thek's arm, painted metallic silver with a series of pale pink bands around the wrist and lower part of the hand and displayed in a vitrine half-covered with a pink cloth ending in human hair; Hand with Ring, a cast of Thek's hand, or three fingers and a thumb, sprouting forth from a pedestal and painted a la the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album cover.
Thek's interest in religion, mysticism, and the flesh (not to mention psychotropics and his conflicted feelings about his homosexuality) are at the fore of his work, placing him, in my mind, at least, with the Surrealists and psychedelic rock, rather than the conceptual artists and minimalists that formed his American milieu. Maybe Thek felt out of place, because despite the success of The Tomb, in which Thek laid himself to rest in a fleshy-pink ziggurat, Thek and his lover, Peter Hujar, relocated to Europe. Further proof of Thek's uniqueness can be found in works from this period, including Dwarf Parade Table (1969), a table supported by wooden dwarves, usually installed to look like a large group feast has just ended, and Fishman in Excelsis Table (1970–1971), a table pulled up to the ceiling with an effigy of Thek tied to its underside, surrounded by fish and looking like Christ, aka the fisherman.
Despite his success as a sculptor and installation artist, Thek never seemed to give up painting, and Diver is peppered with these works, too: images of dwarves, mushrooms, seashells, and ocean scenes, including the diver of the exhibition's title, dashed on sheets of newspaper. The paintings also include abstract color fields, although Thek's muddy palette probably made Rothko grimace. Interestingly, Thek seemed to turn more and more to painting as the years passed. His work from the '80s is nothing but tiny canvases in atrocious colors, covered with blotches, blobs, and phrases scrawled in childish handwriting. The thoughts articulated, however, are neither atrocious nor childlike, but probing and playful, such as "Hurrah Vacuii!!" and "Afflict the Comfortable/Comfort the Afflicted."
Diver: A Retrospective ends with a transition between Thek's '80s pieces as installed by the exhibition's present day curators and a restaging of Paul Thek's last show, at Soho's Brooke Alexander Gallery in 1988, and installed by Thek himself. This is perhaps the sweetest spot of the show. In 1987, Thek was diagnosed with AIDS, and by the time the show came around he was almost too sick to hang his work. Whether for this reason or for another, the paintings encircle the room at the height of a child. Mostly turquoise, they include images of butterflies, schools of fish, and dust, plus a barred window with the bars forced open. Peaceful, playful, and mournful, at the head of the room is a tiny, schoolchild's chair, placed in front of two cityscapes in museum frames. One image in particular stands out: in it, the waning light of the sun hits the front of the buildings. Or, perhaps, for Paul Thek, it is not the end, but the beginning of the day.