Paul Thek was an American artist who spent most of his career living in Europe. People knew him vaguely from the wax caste of his body that came to be know as the “dead hippy” traveled galleries and his “Technological Reliquaries” series, gruesome fleshy forms sculpted from painted wax and latex that were placed in jokey-minimalist tinted plexiglas boxes. The Thek retrospective on display at the Whitney now surveys a large body of poorly known work that spans installation, cast bronzes, journals and paintings on newsprint. It’s an opportunity to study the habits of a handsome, ambitious, and diligent man. Thek was screen-tested by Andy Warhol in the 60′s, painted large eco-conscious Earth Mandala’s in the 70′s, and explored the value of humor and the importance of addressing yourself seriously without making premature accusations of wrongdoing while dying from AIDS in the 1980′s.
The standout rooms of the show feature Thek’s oil and acrylic painting from the 80′s, small framed abstracts that sometimes feature short phrases. People used to call this kind of painting, a knowing mixture and crooked take on both art-historical references and non-art content, “Bad Painting”, after the name New Museum curator Marcia Tucker gave a show she hung there in 1978. We don’t find them offensive at all. In fact, this is exactly the kind of art we want to live with someday. The paintings are sensitive, small and hung low on the wall in dim light that was meant to make people feel like they were viewing them inside a swimming pool. They feel like extreme evidence of how humans can see, seem to be looking at things from heaven or space far away, and from whisper-close at the same time. They’re crowded with confident, thick brushwork and bold colors that complement and then vibrate off one another. But while they seem near implosion, it doesn’t appear Thek was trying to create a system where one visual element or idea trumped another. Rather, they just show what might be created by a romantic, careful, freedom loving person. They remind me of the generosity and backbone of paintings by the Reverend Howard Finster, but Thek’s spirit was more agnostic. They’re not message paintings, they don’t lead anywhere, sort of like the new paintings by Norwegian painter Ida Eckbald. Instead, they are gorgeous, comforting reminders that its possible to remain in a perpetual state of not-knowing, to playfully doubt what you think about yourself, what you see, and how you show it. Thek died in 1988. The paintings from his last show are gathered in the final room of the retrospective. They’re not quite as exciting as the early 80′s stuff, but still totally heartbreaking and affirming. Whether you’re full time or visiting town, the Whitney is always pay-what-you-wish on Friday’s from 6 til 9. Bring your girlfriend! More Thek paintings from the 80′s after the jump.