Home » Loved: Paul Thek at the Whitney

Loved: Paul Thek at the Whitney

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of the late American artist Paul Thek. Recently, we stopped off in New York over the holidays to see the exhibition of work by the late, great American artist at the Whitney (on the last day of the show.)


Paul Thek – shown in Andy Warhol’s Screen Test. Image: accessibleartny.com

I’ve long been aware of Thek’s work through some collector friends who had some early, 60s pieces and in 2008, I traveled to Hamburg for the opening of the first Thek retrospective at the Falckenburg Foundation. That invitation came – kindly – from AA Bronson (see blog post below), whose work with General Idea was also part of the exhibition.


Paul Thek, Untitled, 1966 from the series Technological Reliquaries. image: linea-journal.com

I blogged about that show HERE But the Whitney show, the first American retrospective of Thek’s work, was different, and in some ways, better. The curators included some significant pieces from the Falckenburg collection, but they introduced some contextual pieces that gave the viewer a greater sense of Thek, the man. I discovered that he was the subject of one of Andy Warhol’s famous ‘screen test’ films, and more importantly, that his famous Technological Reliquary works, in which glistening, life-like wax sculptures of human limbs are encased in a super-modern, often fluorescent Perspex boxes, were an attempt to inject ‘humanity’ into the prevailing Minimalism of the day.


Artist Paul Thek, with his effigy, “Tomb”. Image: stevekasher.com

And, that his ‘Headboxes’, which often involved chairs with shoulder mounts, were created to further this approach by allowing the head of the wearer to occupy the space of the ‘art’. Fascinating, when you consider how seriously and successfully he was in pursuing the advancement of art.


Paul Thek, Untitled (Diver), 1969-70

The show is named ‘Diver’ in reference to the Diver figure in a slab from the Tomb of the Diver in Paestum, Italy, which he knew about when living in Rome, and identified strongly with it as an artist diving into the great unknown, trying to find his way.

Perhaps most impressive about Thek is that, in 1967 he created The Tomb, an effigy of himself inside a ziggurat, which he displayed and then re-displayed in different form many times. The piece became known by critics as the Death of the Hippie. Fro Thek, showing the piece was like burying himself, and it showed many times.


Paul Thek, Unititled (Self-portrait), 1966-67 from the series Technological Reliquaries. Image: bjws.com

I think that many young artists are resistant to getting this close to their art, or perhaps I should say that the current trend seems to be for artists to distance themselves from their art. But I think art is much more successful when it is brave, unafraid, unrestrained…almost dangerous. Plus, I really admire Thek’s willingness to be subservient to the art – to place the importance of his art over his own.

The exhibition catalogue has some excellent essays. I recommend it – you can buy it HERE.

One Response to “Loved: Paul Thek at the Whitney”

  1. Bill says:

    Agreed, it was a terrific show. Seeing all of that work together felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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