Paul Thek (1933 – 1988) was a painter, sculptor and installation artist. Once celebrated, he has slipped through the cracks of art history. He deserves our attention in the 21st century.
Born in Brooklyn, he studied at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute and Cooper Union.
Thek was the lover of two exceptional gentlemen, photographer Peter Hujar and painter Joseph Raffael. In the late-1950s he moved to Florida and formed a partnership with the set designer Peter Harvey, who would design for Balanchine and who introduced him to artists, composers and writers, among them Tennessee Williams.
During this time, he created some of his first drawings, including studies in charcoal and graphite, later followed by abstract watercolors and monochrome oil paintings. In 1957, Thek exhibited his works for the first time in a Miami gallery.
After his return to New York in 1959, his artistic circle of friends included writer Susan Sontag, whom he had a romantic relationship.
In the early 1960s, when American Abstract Expressionism reigned, Thek was modeling hyper-realistic images of meat, raw and bleeding, from beeswax. Gross, yet witty, they had the art world buzzing.
Then in 1967, Thek abruptly left for Europe and radically changed his art. Instead of sculpture, he created immense, collaborative, ephemeral environments from throwaway stuff: newspapers, candles, flowers, vegetables and fruit, eggs, and sand. When their time was up, these pieces were tossed in the garbage. Handsome Thek, with his long blond hair and considerable charm, was a bigly success in Europe. Galleries and museums courted him. He stayed for nine years.
In 1976, when he returned to NYC, he was shocked to find that almost no one remembered the work he had done in the 1960s or knew what he had been up to in Europe in the years since, or even cared. He had been away too long. The 1960s were finished.
He had a few Manhattan gallery shows and an exhibition at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, but people stayed away. Depressed and angry, he painted quick, small pictures in his East Village walk-up, smoked a lot of pot, cruised parks and kept an obsessively confessional diary. To support himself, he worked as a checker in a grocery store and in a hospital washing floors.
Thek had so much going for him: talent, looks, energy and a peculiar imagination. He was only 54-years-old when he died of HIV/AIDS in 1988.
His memorial service at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery wasn’t crowded, but his eulogists were Robert Wilson and Sontag, and that’s something. Sontag had dedicated Against Interpretation (1966) to Thek. In 1989 she would dedicate another, AIDS And Its Metaphors, to his memory.
Thek was the subject of a massive, moving and much-anticipated, well-attended retrospective in 2010 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today his work may be seen in numerous collections, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. and, of course, the Whitney.