Carnegie Museum of Art Presents Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, February 5–May 1, 2011
Media Preview: 9–11:30 a.m., Thursday, February 3
Pittsburgh, PA — Carnegie Museum of Art is proud to present Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, the critically acclaimed first major exhibition to explore the work of the legendary artist. Defying classification, Paul Thek (1933–1988)—the sculptor, painter, and creator of radical installations who was hailed for his work in the 1960s and early ’70s—is the subject of an upcoming retrospective opening at Carnegie Museum of Art on February 5, 2011, and co-organized by Carnegie Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The exhibition debuted at the Whitney, where critics from the New York Times called it “a ragged, moving and much-anticipated retrospective”; the New Yorker called the exhibition “remarkable . . . [Thek] is too little known, and his rediscovery promises to have a galvanizing effect on young artists”; and Time Out New York said of Thek, “[t]his pioneer of installation art dodged many of the isms that defined his era and came up with a style completely his own.”
Members of the press are invited to attend a media preview of the exhibition Thursday, February 3, from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Media will be taken on a tour of the exhibition by co-curators and Lynn Zelevansky, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art, and Elisabeth Sussman, Curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney. To RSVP to the media preview, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The exhibition opens to the public on Saturday, February 5, 2011, at 10 a.m.
About the Exhibition
The title of the exhibition, Diver, refers to paintings that Thek made in 1969–1970 on the island of Ponza, off the coast of southern Italy, possibly inspired by the cover slab from the Tomb of the Diver, an ancient fresco unearthed in Paestum in 1968. It is also a metaphor for the artist’s plunge into the unknown and the ongoing pursuit of meaning that is present in all of Thek’s art.
Thek came to recognition after showing his sculptures in New York galleries during the 1960s. The first works he exhibited, called “meat pieces,” resembled glistening pieces of raw flesh housed in geometric Plexiglas boxes. After creating The Tomb in New York in the late 1960s—an astonishing installation featuring a life-sized effigy of the artist laid to rest in a pink ziggurat—Thek left for Europe. There he built extraordinary environments, drawing on religious processions, the theater, and the common experiences of everyday life, while often employing fragile and ephemeral substances such as wax, latex, sand, and tissues. He also worked in Paris with theater director Robert Wilson (who now administers Thek’s estate) and held exhibitions of his small sculptures and paintings on newspaper at galleries in Cologne and Paris. After almost a decade in Europe, where he had achieved a considerable degree of fame, Thek changed direction, moved back to New York, and turned to making small, sketch-like paintings. Thek enjoyed much attention in Europe during the 1970s, but never achieved the same notice in the United States.
Thek died in 1988 at the age of 54, from complications resulting from AIDS. Since his death, Thek has been rediscovered by younger artists, and interest in his work has been maintained abroad with surveys in Holland, and recently, a three-city traveling exhibition in Europe. But until Paul Thek: Diver, his work has not been seen in the U.S. on such a large scale.
Works of art in the show come from many private collections and institutions throughout Europe and the United States. Many of the 130 objects in the exhibition have not been seen in the United States in the decades since they were made; others have never been seen here at all. An exceptional number of Thek’s “meat pieces” (also called Technological Reliquaries), made of beeswax, painted with fluorescent paints, and enclosed in Plexiglas boxes, will be shown.
The exhibition includes such rare works as Untitled (Dwarf Parade Table), never before seen in this country, and Fishman in Excelsis, a latex cast of Thek’s naked body with multiple casts of fish clinging to it, bound to the underside of a table and suspended from the ceiling; the latter is one of a number of works from the collection of the Kolumba Museum in Cologne. Other important elements that were part of Thek’s now-lost European environments will also be shown here for the first time.
Respecting Thek’s own installation aesthetic and the ephemeral nature of his work, the curators are not attempting to reconstruct environments or exhibitions from Thek’s lifetime. In addition to many outstanding works of art, the exhibition includes vintage photographs by Peter Hujar, a photographer and Thek’s longtime partner, and a screen test of Thek done by Andy Warhol. Another key feature, never shown so extensively, are the artist’s journals, lent by Robert Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman Watermill Foundation.
Visitors to the museum may find some works familiar because they were included in the 2008 Carnegie International. Carnegie Museum Art is the second of three venues for this retrospective, which debuted at the Whitney in October 2010. After the Pittsburgh exhibition, the show will travel to the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, where it will be on view from May 22 to September 4, 2011.
Programs for Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective
Carnegie Museum of Art will further explore Paul Thek: Diver through a variety of public programs and lectures, including a discussion about the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic on members of the art world; a talk with the artist Paul McCarthy about Thek’s influence; and a visit to a Pittsburgh-area church known for its amazing collection of Catholic relics. The programs are as follows:
What Are Museums For?
The Art World and AIDS: From 1980s Devastation to Current-Day Censorship
Thursday, February 10, 6:30–7:30 p.m.
CMA Theater; Free
The recent censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, and related backlash from the art community has renewed interest in the impact of AIDS on the art world. See Wojnarowicz’s four-minute film and hear personal perspectives of the devastation AIDS caused in New York City in the 1980s and 90s, and the activism and community building that resulted from it. Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky will talk with Tom Sokolowski (founder of Visual AIDS, the Red Ribbon Project, Day without Art, the Quilt Project, and former director of The Andy Warhol Museum), and Patrick Moore (founding director of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, author of Beyond Shame and Tweaked, and current staff member at Pittsburgh’s Persad Center) about Wojnarowicz’s work and the ways in which AIDS changed our world forever. A reception follows the talk with a cash bar. What Are Museums For? is a lecture series that explores museums and what they offer the culture at large.
Paul Thek: Against Interpretation
Thursday, February 17, 5:30–9:30 p.m.
CMA Galleries; $10, includes museum admission and two drink tickets
Happy hour has never been so interesting. Start with a drink at 5:30 p.m., and then join in the discussion of Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, and why Thek (in the words of Susan Sontag’s provocative essay) railed “against interpretation” of his work and life.
Paul Thek, The Artist’s Artist: A Conversation with Paul McCarthy and Lynn Zelevansky
Saturday, February 19, 5–6 p.m.
Carnegie Lecture Hall; Free
Although he lived a relatively short life, Paul Thek has had an enduring legacy among artists of his own and younger generations. Museum director Lynn Zelevansky, co-curator of Paul Thek: Diver, and Paul McCarthy, an artist renowned for work that challenges convention, discuss how Thek’s experimentation, installation, and performance continue to influence contemporary art practice. This program is followed by University Night.
Stretch Your Brain! It’s University Night at Carnegie Museum of Art!
Saturday, February 19, 6–9 p.m.
CMA galleries; Free
The museum throws open its doors for a free evening of art, music, food, and fun exclusively for college and university students and faculty. Start with the Paul Thek lecture (above) and stay to explore Paul Thek: Diver. Share ideas with your friends, converse with fellow students, sketch your favorite work of art, listen to some music, eat a little food, and gather around the common interest of art.
Bound Together Book Club
Paul Thek: Diver and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
Thursday, March 3, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
CMA galleries; Free
This collaboration with Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh presents casual and thoughtful 15-minute gallery talks highlighting visual and literary connections, followed by book discussion in the galleries with fellow readers and library staff. Most books are available at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. This month’s book selection is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction novel published in 1961. The book earned a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1962 and quickly became a cult classic with its themes of individual liberty and responsibility, sexual freedom, and the influence of organized religion on human culture and government. Space is limited; call 412.622.3288 to register.
Catholicism, the Body, and the Art of Paul Thek
Thursday, March 31, 6:30–8 p.m.
CMA Theater; Free
The human body, both as representation and symbol, is ever-present in Paul Thek’s art, which could be simultaneously intensely spiritual and insistently profane, lyrical and base. Join Dr. Paula Kane of the Department of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh, and Dr. Katharina Winnekes of Kolumba, Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany, for this lecture where they will examine paradoxes embedded in Thek’s spirituality and artistic practice.
Religion and the Body: A Visit to the Relics of St. Anthony’s Chapel
Saturday, April 2, 12:30–4 p.m.
Carnegie Museum of Art and St. Anthony’s Chapel
$30 members/$36 nonmembers.
Begin the afternoon with a tour of Paul Thek: Diver, then board the bus and set off to the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh for a tour of St. Anthony’s Chapel, known for its rich holdings of religious relics. Join the speakers from the March 31 discussion on this tour. Limited to 24 people; call 412.622.3288 to register.
About the Artist
Born in Brooklyn in 1933 and raised in Floral Park, New York, Paul Thek—whose birth name was George Joseph Thek—moved to New York City in 1951, where he attended the Art Students’ League, Pratt Institute, and Cooper Union. Among his friends and fellow students were photographer Peter Hujar and painter Joe Raffaele (later Joseph Raffael). While living in the East Village, Thek worked as a clerk at the New York Public Library, a waiter, and a lifeguard. After school, he moved back and forth between Miami and the Northeast, painting, designing sets, and supporting himself with various odd jobs. (Thek’s nomadic existence later included periods living in Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome, in addition to New York, where he always kept his studio on East 3rd Street. He frequently retreated to the secluded island of Ponza, off the coast of Italy, and to Oakleyville, a remote section of Fire Island.) After returning to New York in 1959, his circle included, in addition to Hujar and Raffaele, the artists Eva Hesse and Ann Wilson, the critic Gene Swenson, and the writer Susan Sontag, who became his close friend. Sontag later dedicated to Thek the American edition of her landmark book of essays, Against Interpretation (1966).
The relationship between Thek and Hujar developed into one of the most important in both their lives. They spent the summer of 1963 in Sicily and visited the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo, where Hujar took unforgettable photographs, and where the rows of human remains in glass boxes had a profound impact on Thek’s work. In Rome, Thek made his sculpture La Corazza di Michelangelo, covering a plaster miniature breast plate in paint and wax. This is the oldest piece in the Diver exhibition. Shortly after his time in Rome, Thek began making his Technological Reliquaries, or “meat pieces.” He showed these at his first New York exhibition, in 1964, at the legendary Stable Gallery. Placed within Plexiglas boxes and hung on walls, the works were deeply disturbing and were taken by many as a comment on the cool remoteness of the geometric sculpture then on view in New York galleries (work later known as Minimalism).
In a 1966 Artnews interview, Thek commented on the meat pieces, saying, “The dissonance of the two surfaces, glass and wax, pleases me: one is clear and shiny and hard, the other is soft and slimy…At first the physical vulnerability of the wax necessitated the cases; now the cases have grown to need the wax. The cases are calm; their precision is like numbers, reasonable.” In a 1969 interview in the Dutch paper De Volkskrant, he said: “In New York at that time there was such an enormous tendency toward the minimal, the non-emotional, the anti-emotional even, that I wanted to say something again about emotion, about the ugly side of things. I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art.”
Thek began making casts of his own arms, legs, and face, and the sculptures that resulted were hyper-realistic representations of brutally severed limbs enshrined in boxes like religious relics or classical sculpture. He then made his most famous work, The Tomb, which opened in a solo show at the Stable Gallery in 1967. It included a life-size effigy of the artist, which came to be known as the “Hippie,” a mannequin with a face and hands from Thek’s body that had been cast in wax with the help of the artist Neil Jenney. The figure was painted pale pink from head to toe, and wore a necklace of human hair and other jewelry made of mixed woven hair with gold. Pink goblets, a funerary bowl, and private letters surrounded the effigy; the fingers of the right hand had been amputated, placed in a pouch, and hung on a wall behind the figure’s head.
“It was as if the viewers had been transported forward in time, allowing them to view the remains of their own culture represented by a young man of the late 1960s, dressed in period style,” said Zelevansky.
In 1969, the “Hippie” was shown at the Whitney, under the title Death of a Hippie, and later traveled to other institutions. Unfortunately, the work vanished at the beginning of the 1980s, but some elements of it will be on view, including photographs by Hujar of Thek in his studio creating the “Hippie.”
In 1968, Thek met Michael Nickel, the director of the Galerie M. E. Thele in Essen, Germany, who invited him to show at his gallery. Thek conceived an exhibition involving chairs and “headboxes,” glass boxes that fit over the head and were to be worn or used in a performance; they were painted in reds and pinks and adorned with hunks of meat. The culminating object was the Sedan Chair, a vehicle for one person to sit in while being carried by four others. Because so much of the work was damaged during shipping, Thek covered the gallery floor in newspaper and repaired, remade, and arranged the surviving and damaged objects. The resulting exhibition, A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress: Objects to Theoretically Wear, Carry, Pull or Wave, evolved over the length of the exhibition from constructed chaos into orderly arrangement. This new process-driven form of exhibition radically altered Thek’s practice.
Thek moved from individual sculptures and tableaux, such as The Tomb, into increasingly ambitious installations. Working with a group of collaborators, including his good friend Ann Wilson and others —a group that came to be known as The Artist’s Co-op—Thek created immersive environments similar in scope to enormous stage sets out of a range of insubstantial materials (newspaper, sand, tissues). The artist began to describe his installations as “processions,” evoking ancient rites, and giving a sense of his art as one continuous work in progress. Thek next created another effigy of himself: Fishman, a full-body latex cast of the artist, naked and covered with fish. In 1969, at an exhibition at the Stable Gallery, he chose to leave the gallery bare and have the work exhibited in the courtyard, suspended in a tree. Thek made four casts of the Fishman, one of which is included in this show.
Thek created major installations in Europe between 1969 and 1973. In keeping with the notion of the “procession,” he transported individual sculptures from one venue to the next, reimagining them in new relationships. Although much from this period was lost, important elements from these installations, never before exhibited in the U.S., are included in this show, along with vintage photographs and a film depicting the works as they appeared at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany, and the Kunstmuseum Luzern.
Although he started as a painter, Thek did not make paintings from 1963 to 1967. In Europe, at the end of the 1960s and in the early ’70s, he began to draw and paint again, using graphite, ink, and watercolor to record his surroundings, and also painting on newspaper. Along with the celestial blue images of swimmers and divers, Thek’s earliest newspaper paintings are populated by pipe-smoking dwarves, a recurring motif, isolated against aggressive red or silver backgrounds. In his “island” paintings, he merges motifs with blue washes of paint on newspaper, depicting islands in the distance formed by the tip of the dwarf’s peaked cap poking through the water.
In early 1969, Thek collaborated on A document with freelance photographer Edwin Klein, an integral member of The Artist’s Co-op. A 126-page book in black-and-white, A document is devoted to photographic collages that capture the visual environment of Thek’s studio. The book was published jointly by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm to accompany Thek’s exhibitions there. It contains a shifting series of photo-collages, each built upon the same newspaper ground, their increasingly complex layers teeming with images and found objects.
In 1975, at a foundry in Rome, Thek made an extensive series of sculptures out of bronze. The small sculptures depict mice, bowls of cherries, pipes, campfires, eyeglasses, lanterns, and other objects that Thek called The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper. Unlike the heroic works traditionally associated with bronze, these diminutive sculptures displayed a childlike quality of innocence and whimsy, and Thek seemed to regard the Pied Piper as a kind of alter-ego. Thek returned to New York in 1976 to an art world in which he was largely unknown. He had returned in anticipation of a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Paul Thek/Processions, which opened in 1977. In the late 1970s, he taught at Cooper Union, and also worked for a short time bagging groceries and as a hospital janitor. Although struggling financially in these years, he wrote to a friend in 1979, “I am beginning to paint again, little canvases, very little, 9” by 12”, all different styles, all different subjects, though I think a lot of Kandinsky, of Klee, of Gustave Moreau…and of Niki de St Phalle, so you can imagine that the paintings are colorful and varied.”
In the 1980s, Thek began to exhibit again, mostly small drawings and paintings in galleries in New York and Paris, work that gives evidence of the important flowering of creativity in his last years. He also created a number of installations in such venues as the Serpentine Gallery in London and the 1980 Venice Biennale. He showed The Tomb in Cologne in 1981, and did an installation at the Hirshhorn Museum in 1984. In 1985, he was chosen to represent the United States at the Bienal de São Paulo, and the following year created an installation in Ghent.
Thek had, by this time, sabotaged some of his most important professional connections and was in a precarious emotional and physical state. In 1987, he learned that he had AIDS, and by 1988, he knew that he was dying. His final installation spoke to his preoccupation with death, unmistakably addressed in works that read “Dust” and “Time is a River.” A clock striking eleven bears the inscription “The Face of God” and the image of a jail window with bars pulled apart is titled Way Out. Thek died on August 10, 1988, while the exhibition was still on view.
The catalogue gathers art historians, curators, an artist, a conservator, and a gallerist to write a collaborative history of Thek’s career. In addition to a foreword by Adam D. Weinberg and Lynn Zelevansky and an introduction by co-curators Sussman and Zelevansky, the catalogue includes individual essays by the co-curators as well as essays on Thek’s early Italian period, his work in the context of Surrealist tendencies of the 1960s, and a first-person account of Thek’s first installation. Many images, such as pages from Thek’s notebooks, photos of original installations, and Thek at work in his studio, are reproduced here for the first time. The catalogue is published by the Whitney Museum of American Art and Carnegie Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.
Support for Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective is provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Dietrich Foundation, and Gail and Tony Ganz. Major support for Carnegie Museum of Art’s presentation is provided by The Henry L. Hillman Fund, the Virginia Kaufman Fund, The Fellows of Carnegie Museum of Art, the Beal Publication Fund, Ann and Marty McGuinn, and Agnes Gund. Antique carpets courtesy the Nazmiyal Collection, New York.
General operating support for Carnegie Museum of Art is provided by The Heinz Endowments and Allegheny Regional Asset District. Carnegie Museum of Art receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Carnegie Museum of Art
Located at 4400 Forbes Avenue in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art was founded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1895. One of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, it is nationally and internationally recognized for its distinguished collection of American and European works from the 16th century to the present. The Heinz Architectural Center, part of Carnegie Museum of Art, is dedicated to enhancing understanding of the physical environment through its exhibitions, collections, and public programs. For more information about Carnegie Museum of Art, call 412.622.3131 or visit our web site at www.cmoa.org.