A self-described “mystic showman,” Paul Thek imbued his work with an idiosyncratic personal symbolism that was deeply rooted in his uneasy relationship to Catholicism and his preoccupation with death, ritual, and the symbolic function of objects and images. After graduating from Cooper Union in New York City in 1954, Thek worked for ten years before achieving his first critical success with the Technological Reliquaries series (1964–1967), the earliest of which were plexiglass-entombed wax sculptures depicting freshly cut flesh with all the layers of sinewy muscle, hair, and fat intact. One of these visceral objects, Hippopotamus (1965), was inspired by the fabulist rantings of Sylvia Kraus, who launched public tirades against communism and environmental dangers, claiming that “hippopotamus poison” was being used to oppress and control the American public. The tubing in Thek’s sculpture suggests a bizarre life-support system for the tainted flesh, vaguely hinting at Kraus’ medical science fiction, a “poetic misunderstanding of the world” Thek found beautiful for its fervor and imagination.1
The Technological Reliquaries inscribed the body, in all its stinking, rotting, grotesque reality, into the midst of Minimalism’s coolness and the slick branded imaging of Pop Art. They also espoused an aesthetic of immediacy with a firm basis in reality; as the artist said, “Everything is beautiful and everything is ugly simultaneously.”2 Thek had a constant concern for the themes of body, death, spiritual redemption, and rites of passage, but he also ascribed to a kind of material pragmatism in which artworks are not so much discrete objects as they are parts from which to construct elaborate scenarios. The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper (circa 1975), for example, is a group of bronze objects that seem to be the postmortem remains of the Piper’s belongings. They include pieces related to the tale—a burnt-out campfire, a folding kit of implements, several mice, and a loaf of bread and some books the rodents have hollowed out—commingled with references to other narratives, including the Bible and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As a whole, Thek’s Pied Piper is a cautionary tale of power, technological progress, and the potential consequences that may arise when humanity plays games of follow the leader too naively.
The idea of “Procession” lies deep in the heart of all of Thek’s work and life, which were conjoined in an always-evolving experience that was ephemeral or nomadic, unfixed, collaborative, full of ritual, and anti-concrete. An early work, Pyramid/A Work in Progress (1971–1972), is a room-size encampment of sorts in which multiple sculptures and found objects were connected by elaborate ad hoc walkways and passages. Begun as a monthlong process of environmental creation with the loose cadre of artists known as Artist’s Co-op, the work was called by Thek both a “time temple” and a “life theatre”3 and exemplified his approach to mythic, personal art as well as camp theatricality, sensual spirituality, and communal creativity.
In 1980, Thek realized an installation of paintings that, through lighting, seating, and decor, consciously created a humanizing situation for viewing art. Commonly known as the “Picture Light Paintings” due to their presentation in kitschy gold frames with picture lights, the works exorcise the demons of twentieth-century painting with quirky charm and strange wit. From serene landscapes to the brushy abstraction of the Walker Art Center’s Bambi Growing (circa 1980) to garish abstraction, raw expressionism, and sight gags, the paintings were variously about, according to Thek, theology, psychology, philosophy, art, beauty, and humor. Bambi Growing was a sentimental reference to the Disney movie, a favorite of the artist’s, and the patient constancy of Bambi’s mother.
The representative sampling of Thek’s work in the Walker’s collection situates itself easily within art-historical trajectories from Joseph Beuys and Arte Povera to later international developments in Conceptual and Process Art. His sincerely poetic works, intended as meditations and healing environments, are also witty provocations that confront the blunt realities of the world while reaching for answers about life beyond it on both mental and spiritual planes.