Retrospective reminds why Paul Thek was influential
One look at the latest exhibit to fill the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Galleries, "Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective," and you're likely to become physically agitated. That's because the first gallery visitors will likely come to contains several Plexiglas boxes filled with what look like slabs of flesh and meat, some of which appear fly covered.
That gut-wrenching response is what the late artist intended.
"I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art," Paul Thek (1933-88) once said about his early work, which he called "meat pieces," and, to that end, these pieces can certainly attest.
Take for example "Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box" (1965) from the series "Technological Reliquaries." Utilizing one of Andy Warhol's famous Brillo Boxes (a gift from the pop artist), Thek filled it with what looks like a massive slab of human flesh, complete with hair follicles and hair, to which he added a clear piece of medical tubing, an obvious reference to medical procedures.
Thek's "meat pieces" where a reaction against the cool, sterile nature of 1960s minimalism, an art movement at its zenith at the time. It was the first of several groundbreaking moves by an artist who has since become all but forgotten. But it did not go without notice. One of the early theoretical tomes of this period, Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (1962), was dedicated to him.
"Thek believed that death and decay were a part of life," says Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky.
Zelevansky curated this exhibit along with Elisabeth Sussman, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where this show opened this past fall to rave reviews.
Zelevansky describes Thek as "a pioneer." An artist who defies classification, Thek was one of the first to create installation art. When he died at 54 from complications from AIDS, he left behind an impressive body of work, much of it in pieces that were parts of larger installations.
Still, he was largely forgotten until seven years ago, when Zelevansky and Sussman began unearthing much of his works from the collections of the few who paid attention while he was alive.
"He's a very unusual and enigmatic character," Zelevansky says. "He was raised a Roman Catholic and remained a practicing Catholic all of his life. Before he died, he was seriously looking into becoming a monk."
Born in Brooklyn, Thek studied at the Art Students League of New York, the Pratt Institute and Cooper Union in the 1950s before moving to Miami. But, by the early 1960s, he was back in New York City where he befriended several influential artistic types, such as critic Gene Swenson and writer Sontag.
Although he started as a painter, Thek early on chose instead to focus on his highly detailed meat pieces, which are so realistic they put some special-effects movie make-up artists and their works to shame.
At the end of the 1960s, he moved to Europe and began to work on large-scale, immersive environments. These larger works included similar elements to the meat pieces -- fleshy globs that appear all too palpably real -- but interspersed among found objects and oddly placed pieces of furniture, as in "Untitled (Chair with Crow and Meat)" (1968).
"Installations like 'The Tomb' (1967) or 'Ark, Pyramid' (1972) no longer exist," Zelevansky says. "But here we tried to re-create some of the pieces we know of with existing elements."
One of the most arresting pieces is "Fishman in Excelsis Table," (1969), which includes a life-size body cast of the artist in latex, covered in fish. It hangs from the ceiling of the second gallery. The "Fishman" piece on display here is one of two he created, and the only one that survived, Zelevansky says.
"A lot of the elements in his installations don't exist anymore. They simply deteriorated," she says.
In the late 1970s, Thek returned to New York City and painting, making brushy, semi-abstract works on newspaper.
Some of Thek's "newspaper paintings," or paintings on newspaper, from this time are on display in the exhibit. They include such imagery as pipe-smoking dwarves, purple dinosaurs and cherries, all of which were recurring motifs.
The last gallery features several of Thek's later works, which almost entirely take the form of small paintings on canvas. The paintings are hung low, compelling visitors to bend down, almost as if in commemoration.
In a small room inside this last gallery, Thek's last exhibit has been re-created, installed exactly the way the artist installed it at Alexander + Bonin Gallery in New York before dying of AIDS in 1988. These works are the ones produced shortly before his death, and they show it. One, for example, depicts the face of a clock and the words "The Face of God." In another, Thek simply wrote "Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted" in yellow paint surrounded by a sea of purple.
"They have themes in them that pertain to death, but you can see him see death really as a kind of freedom, as a kind of escape," Zelevansky says.
"The work is so gorgeous and moving, and so unafraid of the dark side and so appreciative of the light side," Zelevansky says. "I just think it's amazing."Additional Information:
'Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective'
When: Through May 1. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $15; $12 for senior citizens; $11 for children and students; free to children younger than 3
Where: Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland
Details: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Alamo named as World Heritage site by United Nations
- Don’t remove history’s lessons
- Alvarez homer triggers winning outburst for Pirates
- Pirates claim Ishikawa off waivers; Marte injured
- Pittsburgh singer Lee spreads love through music, charitable works
- High tax could scuttle online gaming in Pa., CEO says
- United States takes down Japan, wins third Women’s World Cup
- More than 120,000 attend Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival
- McCutchen, Pirates hitters increasingly in crosshairs
- Man charged with passing counterfeit bills at Rivers Casino
- Police: Maine man shoots off firework from top of head, dies