Installing a major loan exhibition is often the culmination of years of research in archives and libraries, interviews, international travel to far-flung collections, and negotiations for hard-to-come-by loans. Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, which opened in New York on October 21, is that kind of project. Co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and Carnegie Museum of Art, it is the artist’s first US retrospective. Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman and I wrote long essays for the catalogue, for which we chose the designer, commissioned articles, selected images, and oversaw the development of the exhibition history and notes on the works. For me, preparing for the installation meant multiple trips to New York, where we created aesthetic, thematic, and narrative rationales for the sequencing of the show, and worked with floor plans and a model to see how the art fit into the galleries. Back in Pittsburgh, we adapted the New York plans to our spaces.
Inevitably, however, the actual installation is full of surprises: works dominate or are diminished by the gallery spaces in unanticipated ways; individual pieces interact, taking on previously unrecognized meanings. Installations are bustling affairs, involving registrars, art handlers, conservators, couriers from other museums and private collections, engineers and lighting technicians, carpenters, and exhibition administrators, in addition to curators, curatorial assistants, and interns of various stripes. There are always unexpected and occasionally unwelcome developments. This time, two sculptures containing taxidermied birds were held up by the US Department of Fish and Wildlife and didn’t arrive until the evening before the opening.
Paul Thek: Diver was difficult to conceptualize and mount. In 1967, Thek abandoned a successful career in New York for Europe, where he fought what he saw as the lifelessness of traditional art displays; in major European museums he conceived immersive works that were collaboratively produced and ephemeral in nature. They can never be re-created. In addition, because of his nomadic lifestyle and emotional instability, key works were lost or destroyed. Elisabeth and I needed to reflect Thek’s aesthetic values and intrinsic theatricality without creating pale imitations of his art. Where we could, we mirrored his low lighting and hanging strategies; we represented the major European installations with their most important relics and photo and film documentation.
It was only on the morning of the press preview, when I stood at the entrance to the exhibition, that I knew the retrospective was what Elisabeth and I hoped it would be. The show opens with a large projection of Andy Warhol’s 1964 Screen Test of Thek, a silent, almost motionless film that pictures a beautiful blond man who seems to exist on a distant plane. It ends with Thek’s last installation, which was on display at a New York gallery when he died in the summer of 1988 of complications from AIDS. In it, predominantly blue paintings on newspaper hang close to the floor; the effect is of a swimming pool, a reference to the water that Thek loved. One painting depicts a clock striking eleven with the inscription “The Face of God”; another, which shows a cell window with bars pulled apart, is titled Way Out; a small light blue canvas flecked with white specks reads “dust.”
Paul Thek: Diver will come to CMA in February. The show will, of necessity, change, and the Pittsburgh installation is sure to yield its own problems, surprises, and insights. More significantly, each venue has its own audience, and I am very much looking forward to sharing Thek’s art and life with the Pittsburgh community.
Until next month,