Paul Thek : Diver, A Retrospective
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
21 October 2010 – 9 January, 2011
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
5 February – 1st May, 2011
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
22 May – 4 September, 2011
With the spectral radiation of 2000s boom art still saturating the atmosphere at near lethal levels, how can one not fail to tackle the issue of legitimization in New York without throwing one’s vote behind the popular avant-garde? “Scene 1. A landscape (the dark forest, the lake, the tears). Garden gnomes. A column of light.” Start by quoting from Susan Sontag’s “Parsifal” text for Robert Wilson. While writing this, there were rumors of protestors in Egypt breaking into a museum of antiquities and destroying some mummies, which made me wonder what I would do if one afternoon I saw the Metropolitan Museum of Art being burned and looted? I’d do nothing—because I’m nonviolent and tolerant of others—and go home to think about more timely questions, such as, is it possible to delete all the copies of an image from the internet short of annihilating the entire planet? Or I’d daydream about being a successful looter ending up with a painting in my studio apartment, to own and appreciate while checking my emails. Years ago in Paris, I saw an exhibition at the Louvre called “Painting as Crime.” I didn’t actually go in the exhibition; I just stared at the entrance, where there were projections of Viennese Actionist films. Bodies getting sprayed with paint in a way to suggest painting as cold formal rape. Later I found out that around the corner from the entrance was the photo work of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the Actionist who did his actions for no audience, just for the camera, and then committed suicide early in his life. Back to thinking about looting. The real transgressive criminal pleasure is in owning someone else’s painting, not making one yourself, no matter how negative or critical the gesture. Just buy a work with money (or resort to outright theft). Take a piece of evidence of this civilization’s long cultural effort and one artist’s existential stake in said effort, and then hoard it during your minuscule lifetime.
Problematic, symptomatic. At first, I find the Paul Thek question to be a bit problematic, but then again, the Paul Thek effect is entirely symptomatic. “I don’t envy you,” says J. It was the same J who made me aware of Thek some twelve years ago, by tossing a museum catalog in front of me on the kitchen table in the Brooklyn apartment where I rented a room from him. “Look!” said the catalog, and it showed me a bunch of installations made in Europe that ended up being scattered and trashed instead of preserved. There were appealing things about them, not the least was the fact that they were no longer around. They felt lived, charged with sincere meaning, funny and warm. Memorial to the dead hippie—to come across a wax hippie corpse in a gallery in the 60s at the height of hippie culture instantly hit some punkish buttons embedded in my program. After seeing the openness and improvisation of the installations, this introduced a malicious sense of humor to what I was getting. The last work I remember in that dose of contextualized information I received about Paul Thek in 1998, was the Warhol Brillo Box with Meat Sculpture. What a nice way to fuck with Warhol, I thought. Putting these points down, I see it’s quite possible that they come from the Mike Kelley death and transfiguration text I read shortly after seeing the catalog, or even before seeing it, which is important to mention in the problematics I want to dodge and therefore need to pinpoint: namely, that there was a usage of Paul Thek in the 1990s, an informational function with overt subterranean desires, which certain people and institutions militated for, and that I was in the targeted audience. And if this audience of that time had some convictions, the heroic obscurity of Paul Thek could back them up, say, in thinking that Jeff Koons was completely worth forgetting about, or that Damien Hirst was, well, there, but it didn’t matter, that Artforum was unreadable, that making art was possibly an uninteresting thing to do, or even that ditching New York to hang around in Europe could still be imaginable, in a romantic, fuck-the-USA kind of way. It might be important to mention that there were other dead, occult names in the arsenal distributed at the time, like Jack Smith, or David Wojnarowicz. The importance lies in trying to depict a condition of being informed, imprinted culturally, by patterns which, however embarrassingly or confessionally (mis)read, act like devices modifying decisions. The notion of the artist’s artist, that opportunistic tool in the service of an individual’s genealogy of reference, needs to be discarded when faced with a systematic view of culture as an apparatus where there are only networked brains and their alignment within the apparatus. Leaving us with politics in the ultra-contemporary sense of the term, non-emancipatory and harvested, historically impoverished, a marker of one’s position, taste and habits. From Paul Thek to Glenn Beck.
To debate the changing status of Paul Thek with his recent Whitney retrospective, to consider the current stage of his being revived, resurrected, and enshrined and to say what works, what doesn’t work. I had the opportunity to engage in that sort of critique before, but couldn’t because my circumstances made practicing scene politics a nebulous and numb thing to do. It was 2008, when I had to live with my mother again in Pittsburgh for financial reasons after moving back from Europe. One morning, as my mom was blasting NPR in the kitchen before she went to work (time for a single explanatory note: NPR, or National Public Radio, is a US state-supported radio program that feeds culture and politics to the American suburbs, and there’s a both elitist and populist cliché of people who listen to NPR while driving their Volvos to work—liberals, social democrats, the educated-employed), the curator of the then current Carnegie International was talking about the themes of the exhibition called “Life on Mars,” and highlighting Paul Thek’s painting of the Life magazine cover photo of earth on newspaper as a return to the hand-crafted, the personal and intimate. As an antidote to what, I wondered? As far as I could tell the International was still full of the usual international art world roster (Doug Aitken, Ryan Gander, Haegue Yang, etc.), with its project of giving Pittsburgh a glimpse of the global, and as for the Bowie song reference… it broadcasted the creepy hipness of contemporary art in weekend-magazine listings culture. The curator mentioned there was to be a Japanther concert in the museum’s sculpture garden that weekend. I decided to skip the Carnegie and go stand around some Christian metalcore show instead, wondering at what Paul Thek could mean today while surrounded by a bunch of hardcore-dancing, straight-edge, scene-kids, including one with a “Pittsburgh” tattooed on an arm as local allegiance. The suburbs, how awful of me to bring that up as someone now sitting and writing in powercentric Manhattan, as if the suburbs are some kind of potent realistic opposition evident for me to use, when all that happens is I end up with the shock of crystal clear trashy water bubbling out of classic modernist disgust. Even sadder is dragging Paul Thek’s good name through all this provincial, suburban dreck, with NPR, Hot Topic, subculture-in-ruins, my origins, biography, and middle-class taste.
Back to the other show, “Diver,” at the Whitney. It was organized as a biographical loop, and with Thek’s biography the path is significant. Because his start is official art world evidence on the table—the meat sculptures—to be weighed against other offerings in art historical time. There was his Warhol screen test at the entrance as a sort of membrane to pass into and out of, which added to the solidity of the thrust. What is this solidity? It’s the solidity of a professionalism that has to circulate and spread, like knowing, thanks to all the scholarship and publicity, that the hippie cadaver is not called that but just The Tomb, which is a better title, when thinking about things in a networked art brain sort of way. “Contemporary art is a dialogue,” is another type of phrasing of the same condition. Aside from flat out referencing and quotation of other people’s work in one’s own work, the dialogue can be simply with/for/against what’s going on if the information is centrally controlled. Strong markets help guarantee this control, less by the price tag on an individual work, more by subsidizing the infrastructure that can communicate the sense of a work to someone else than its collector. Contrary to the fears of a market-driven culture—a determining characteristic of mass media where the cultural product makes money off the audience—the cohesion of the art market works in the service of autonomous information control, the artificial gravity of meaning that can be tracked in all its permutations, that then allows for the relatively small number of people active in the art milieu to have a dialogue. Does an idea of humanism and discourse come with the dialogue metaphor, or is it the thought of snappy lines in a movie, a TV show, a chat—a sort of fluency and instantly winning performance? With neither the conservative faith in progress of academia (inherently anti-conservative, contemporary art abhors rules and demands turnaround), nor the ruthless disposability of pop culture (critics, curators, and historians are the guardians of transcendence), the dialogue is also a special part of cybernetic culture where the most virulent, damaging feedback is encouraged. With this idea of culture (including apparatuses and their programs), I owe a basic debt to Vilém Flusser, who described it as the provenance of writers, painters, composers, bookkeepers, managers. Those who create, process and store symbols in produced objects: books, paintings, scores, balance sheets, plans. As symbols, Thek’s reliquaries describe the flat-out dystopian notions of such a culture. Perhaps too prophetically well. Flesh, skin, pubic hair, leg hair, fat, veins, and flies housed in metal-framed Plexiglas vitrines. Relics more obsolete than worthy of reverence. So who cares if a post-human destroys a mummy? Now for a bit of celebrity spotting. While I was at the Whitney the first time, I spied Terence Koh in the reliquary room. He was dressed all in white deconstructed designer rags, looking like a high-level tundra warrior-priest from a video game. He spent ample time in front of the meat pieces, I couldn’t help but notice, and so I wondered why couldn’t May get him to write about Paul Thek? And then why did they get me to do it? What is this Paul Thek moment and how can I escape it? I wish I were on a beach with Terence instead, in winter gear, talking about “Diver.” How would that sound? If he can walk out of this show inspired and amused, then I can too.
My second trip to the Whitney to see “Diver” was the night of the 2010 after-Christmas blizzard in New York. Though the night began with a wondrous white deafness clogging the city’s circulation, and ended toppling in car-sized snowdrifts on abandoned streets until your body wants to be amputated, earlier at the show I had an insight because I ran into A, who told me about Ann Wilson and her Stag in the Boat. Wilson was one of Thek’s collaborators during his collective European installations, and she has insisted on authorship of that element (the stag in the boat) over several Thek retrospectives. My first dim reaction to this was, why insist on originating something that then could appear in any European production of a Wagner opera in the past twenty years? Regardless whether one feels that The Artist’s Cooperative hindered a few individualities by being a collective assembled under the star name of Thek, is that any worse than having one’s work taken up and incorporated into that larger, inescapable collaborative project of culture, where any sign, symbol, practice, or gesture can be rearticulated and established as a fully-functioning part of the program? Not owning the patent is a grievance, I admit, but only if things end up in Disneyland, and maybe they did. The magical aura placed on antique objects, the new relics after the arrival of 19th century bourgeois design, which incorporates romantic nature and out-of-date tools that were once vital to survival, sprinkled with a preliterate childlike wonder found in best-selling fantasy novels. Thinking about Ann Wilson was important, because halfway through the exhibition, there was a series of bronzes arranged on a carpet—The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper—along with a number of drawings and watercolors. I couldn’t stop thinking about theater, especially a kind of theater that has its roots in the late 1970s, visual theater. Thek was playing with a set of images and symbols repeatedly—turtles, molars, globes, tar baby, prunes, molasses, hot potatoes, hippie, fishman, the Tower of Babel, Bojangles—which reminded me of Jack Smith and his iconography of penguins and the lobster-landlord. Works such as the Dwarf at Sea, Standing Dwarf, or Raising of the Titanic have an epic, antispectacular, enchanting quality that reminded me of Robert Wilson. And then in one of the rooms, I saw a photograph of Sheryl Sutton performing before Thek’s backdrop for Robert Wilson’s “Overture for KA Mountain And GUARDenia Terrace” in Paris, 1972. Visual theater includes the theater of Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, or even Tadeusz Kantor, and it comes after the activist-experimental 1960s groups like The Living Theater, The Open Theater, and Bread and Puppet theater. At the start, strongly influenced by Jack Smith, this was a distant, head-trip theater of images and fragmented words aimed at interrupting drama and acting, destroying the emotionally-driving narration and logic of the dramatic text and replacing it with duration, gaps, images that could seem nonsensical or logically frustrating. As the 1980s happened, along with the design revolutions of postmodernism, Robert Wilson would take this theater into images that seemed to be able to respond to anything historically and globally and come-back with dream-like beauty. Without the didactic meaning or narrative clichés that are embedded in mass theater entertainment, Wilson’s theater is nonetheless a popular avant-garde, even an official one, which in turn must have influences on the equally visual theater of Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.
The theatrical link was strongly present in the Whitney retrospective. Warm, low lighting, shadows, spotlights on a Dwarf Parade Table or Fishman suspended from the ceiling. The low light and legibility are also metaphors for what makes it difficult to try to read Thek’s installations, to decipher the extant photographic documentation and fragments of elements in order to make a cartography of meaning. Do that, and one ends up with Thek’s Christian spirituality, whereas I’m more intrigued by his professional anarchy, his free-spirit traveler mentality back in the day with established European institutions, biennials, and historically renowned curators. Before Godard staged it in the drama of his Pompidou exhibition, before the photo-op Vice magazine gestures of Dash Snow and Dan Colen’s “Nest” at Deitch Projects, Thek was squatting in the art world at a time when the world outside of art was still squattable. It’s not possible to squat in the same way any longer. Once communication takes over the definitions of work and the commodity, everything is put to work, including squatting, depression, and poverty. Hippies adopted poverty as a sign of their difference and protest, and also for a freer lifestyle. With a bit of a stretch, a similar statement can be made about early Christians under the Roman Empire. Today, however, such an idea of poverty doesn’t hold up, especially without the intolerance and persecution of former times. Poverty is used now to eradicate any possibility of existing outside the economic norm—the space of poverty as confinement and containment. As a style or aesthetic, there’s the poverty-chic adopted by the rich as a sign of difference against the upwardly ambitious, poor mainstream who think conservatively and traditionally by wanting new things, even if they’re cheap. Thek’s aesthetic of the rummage sale, anything-goes DIY irreverence (bricolage), and the forlorn minimal aura of poor materials has aged perfectly, meaning that it is instantly understandable, acceptable, and recognizable by most anyone as alternative or avant-garde looking. On the other hand, Thek’s real poverty sticks out sorely in the Whitney exhibition, creating contradictions and difficulties in reception that are worth elaborating upon. In the last rooms of the show, unfolds the end of Thek’s life when he was living in New York, dying of AIDS, and making paintings with discount-store poor materials like canvas board, mass-produced frames, even a label maker. It reads as tragic, this story, but there’s another aspect: gawking at the car wreck. The roadside gruesome voyeurism with Paul Thek’s career happens because it took place in an art world recognizable as the direct historical precursor to today’s art world. Far from being excluded from art history, he was in the center of it, perhaps marginalized, punished, but why? Thek’s poverty is not anyone’s poverty and that’s what makes it possible to wonder at Jean-Christophe Ammann in Lucerne trashing his works, at Thek not having a gallery support system to help preserve, organize, and sell every aspect of his production—especially odd today when it would be impossible to imagine a similar fate for an installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, Sarah Sze, or Jason Rhoades. Meanwhile, there’s the shock/horror/spectacle of Thek’s now-valued work having been lost because of storage issues. It’s like the dilemma of the artist evicted or moving from his studio—with canvases on the street to be hauled away to the dump. Those works could be trashed, should be trashed. The fear and terror of the artist—what makes my work relevant and not junk, or how to escape garbage collection and end up in the collector’s house? The motion of art, both as waste and as valuable product.
Returning to New York after years of work in Europe, Thek felt alienated and left out of the rhythms not only of success, but the bubble of being a part of New York. Forgetting the platitude of Europe being more receptive to challenging art work than America, and as well skirting the idea that being unknown in the United States is a kind of political honor, we end up with a New York art system that is not only powerful and focused, but intensely social, actively happening in a closed space. Less of a ruthless social mafia system, the kind that Europeans are actually experts at, New York has a nightclub atmosphere, with flavors of the month (that don’t get tossed out after their time is up) and always something or someone new about to come past the doorman… but slowly and one-