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Art review: 'Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective' at UCLA Hammer Museum

June 22, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Thek install 2

In the New York art world, Paul Thek has been a cult figure for about as many years as he was a practicing artist. Susan Sontag dedicated her influential 1966 book of collected criticism, "Against Interpretation," to him, and it's mostly on that page that the late artist's name has endured.

A traveling survey of Thek's sculptures, installations and paintings now at the UCLA Hammer Museum tries hard to fill in the knowledge gap. But, finally it doesn't make an effective case for the singular importance of his mildly engaging work.

Partly that's a result of the ephemeral nature of his sometimes collaborative installations, begun in the late 1960s. Once shown, they were typically dismantled, their materials discarded. The work no longer exists.

Thek, who died in 1988 at 54, was shocked into inspiration by a 1963 visit to the famous Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, Sicily, with his sometime lover, photographer Peter Hujar. There, dehydrated human bodies, many dressed in contemporary clothing and some displayed in glass cases, offered a startling archive of life's impermanence. Thek, born into an unhappy middle-class Brooklyn family, was raised an observant Catholic. Post-Palermo, he took the transience of the flesh as his primary motif.

That subject couldn't have been more different from the Minimalist tide of hard-edged industrial and geometric sculpture beginning to emerge in Manhattan. In the 1950s Thek had studied locally at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute and Cooper Union, and he was nearly 30 when he made the fateful visit to Sicily. In a series of sculptures begun the next year, he used what he saw to lampoon emergent Minimalism.

Thek Meat 2These 1964-65 sculptures are "meat reliquaries" -- beefy, fool-the-eye slabs of painted wax. Some are tricked out with soft tufts of hair that emphasize their fleshiness, while plastic flies suggest morbidity and decay. The meat slabs are housed inside geometric containers of varying complexity.

Helpfully, the Thek reliquaries at the Hammer are introduced by a shrine-like room, which sets an illuminating tone. The sculptures derive from the Catholic tradition of displaying physical remains of saints, such as bits of bone or clothing, inside containers whose design reflects the era's prevailing stylistic trends -- Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, etc.

In Thek's case, that meant the sleek technology of Minimalism and the brash commercial language of Pop. His most well-known example features an imitation Brillo box made of painted-wood by Andy Warhol, tipped on its side to reveal a big, thickly veined slab inside. Thek's meat is as fake as Warhol's box.

The authenticity of religious relics was a standard subject for debate throughout history, since fakes abound; but there's no debate here. Thek's meat slabs revel in luxurious duplicity. His reliquaries resonate precisely because of their painstaking technical commitment to convincing artifice.

So the sculptures don't make a reactionary case for "interior authenticity" as a missing ingredient in new and supposedly soulless '60s art. Instead they embody the fraudulence of the concept of essential spirit, however much it's extolled in popular conceptions of art.

Unfortunately, although the Brillo meat-sculpture was included when the Thek retrospective had its debut last year at New York's Whitney Museum (which organized the show with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum), it did not travel to Los Angeles. The omission of arguably his best sculpture looms large.

Its sentiment led to a now-legendary 1967 work, loosely recalling the Capuchin catacombs. A full-size effigy of the artist was fashioned from colored wax and synthetic hair, dressed in a double-breasted suit, and laid out on a plinth inside a big, pink step-pyramid. One hand's wax fingers were severed and hung on the wall in a bag -- a makeshift reliquary for "the hand of the artist," once-revered but no longer venerable in '60s art.

Formally titled "The Tomb," the installation was better known as "The Dead Hippie," one dismissive critic's epithet. The sculpture was widely shown over the next 13 years -- to the artist's growing dismay --  becoming a fetish describing an era. Disapproving, Thek eventually allowed it to be tossed into the trash.

Thek Diver 2 The decision was in keeping with the ephemeral installation art Thek made in the late 1960s and 1970s, after he left New York to spend a decade working in Europe. Fragments of some installations, well-documented in the show's catalog, are in the galleries.

These shards transform the museum's pristine white rooms into an institutional-scale reliquary. Thek, though, was no artistic saint. The show, overly large at 130 objects, is more handsomely and capaciously installed than the Whitney's disjointed version, but the size dilutes the strength of already uneven work.

After Thek's 1977 return to New York, a growing romantic escapism makes one wince. Small paintings are hung low by the floor to approximate a child's viewpoint, for example, but the forced appeal to lost innocence is incompatibly arch.

Times were certainly tough, especially for an artist whose work had enjoyed a flurry of mid-1960s attention but was now mostly forgotten. When the AIDS epidemic that would later take his life began raging, unchecked and widely ignored, Thek was painting wistful aphorisms on canvas board. In one, the famous dictum of early 20th century journalist and political satirist Finley Peter Dunne, "Afflict the comfortable; comfort the afflicted," is scrawled in ecclesiastical yellow and purple paint.

Thek's most consistent works are modest acrylics painted on daily newspapers, which he began in the 1960s. One obliterates the day's bleak events with dense ripples of black, gray and white, suggesting layers of sedimentary rock. Another is a trippy still life of mushrooms and birds, which obscures a page filled with grim Vietnam war stories and a paid editorial advocating oil exploration. A third features a sleek nude figure plunging through a blue wash of sky or water, giving the Hammer show its title: "Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective."

These lovely, casual newspaper works are essentially drawings, which wear unfolding thoughts on their sleeve. Today, many are as touching -- and sometimes as painful -- as when they were made. They strike that temporal spiritual chord that Thek was always after.

Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective, UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000 Through Aug. 28. Closed Monday.


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-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Paul Thek, installation view; "Untitled (Meat Piece With Flies)," 1965, mixed media; "Untitled (Diver)," 1969-70, acrylic on newspaper; Credit: UCLA Hammer Museum