This 6th issue of May focuses on a selection of writings about the artist Paul Thek (1933-1988), which we are publishing in the wake of his first American retrospective at the Whitney Museum last autumn, following a retrospective organized by the ZKM that circulated between 2007 and 2009 in Europe. The unfolding of these two restrospectives reactivated the debate on the different ways in which Thek’s work has been received, along with every manner of mistake and “real misunderstanding” about the systems of ideological, artistic and social logic that influenced his career, and have ever since nurtured the myth of a cult artist—an ‘artist’s artist’.
The selection is based on the debate launched in the early 1990s—just when his work was being rediscovered–and considers the conditions of its reception and the way its meanings were being updated. Paul Sztulman’s essay retraces Thek’s trajectory, and emphasizes the lack of understanding surrounding his work, especially where its spiritual and religious connotations are concerned. By underscoring the rejection of symbolism and transcendence upon which the modernist doxa is built, Sztulman thoroughly re-examines a radical, and at times mystical, existential experience, where the works are but a brief moment—an experience that cannot be altogether conveyed by the museum. The importance, with the case of Thek, of going beyond the “trap of interpretation” where the art object is concerned also lies at the heart of a short text by Marietta Franke, published in Texte zur Kunst in the early 1990s, in response to the famous and seminal essay by Mike Kelley “Death and Transfiguration”, which still acts as a guide for many analyses of Thek’s “contemporaneousness”. Franke argues against Kelley’s prejudices and subjectivity, and his lack of attention to the context of the artist’s work. Lastly, artist Antek Walczak reconsiders how institutions “reanimate” Paul Thek today, before putting forward the notion of povera/poverty; against a backdrop of cultural dystopia, Walczak homes in on Thek’s “professional anarchy”, and its current relevance.
Thek’s oeuvre is still a source of misunderstandings and difficulties for historian and interpreter alike, and it should not be forgotten that it now represents a challenge of power (in economics) as much as of knowledge. It’s strength can nowadays be gauged, however, by its capacity to stimulate questions of method, thorough examinations of established aesthetic canons and theoretical tools, and propositions involving “counter-histories” of art. These three texts each deal with this kind of negativity in art history, a hazardous exercise, because as Marietta Franke puts it: “The judgemental snare appears to offer itself especially if art-historical research is missing, or bound-up with a great deal of effort.”