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Retrospective reminds why Paul Thek was influential

| Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011

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

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