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Collections> Browse > Hippopotamus from Technological Reliquaries

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Courtesy Walker Art Center
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Courtesy Walker Art Center


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Hippopotamus from Technological Reliquaries
Paul Thek
overall 11-3/8 × 19-¾ × 11-½ inches
beeswax, plexiglass, metal, rubber
Not on view

Object Details

Accession Number
Credit Line
T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1994

object label Paul Thek, ”Hippopotamus” from Technological Reliquaries (1965) Walker Art Center, 1999

“I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene–where the name of the game seemed to be ‘how cool you can be’ and 'how refined.’ Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it.”–Paul Thek, 1981

Paul Thek began a group of “meat” pieces in the mid-1960s. They evolved primarily from two negative impulses: a reaction against the clean, cool forms of Minimalist and Pop Art and, more importantly, his revulsion with U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Both impulses positioned the artist in opposition to the mainstream current, where he continued to stand until his death from AIDS in 1988.

The meat pieces suggest the fragile hold on life that is our shared human condition. Encased in a vitrine resembling both an incubator and a glass casket, Hippopotamus leads the viewer to contemplate the literal and spiritual mortification of the flesh that haunted Thek throughout his career as an artist.

Label text for Paul Thek, Hippopotamus from Technological Reliquaries (1965), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001.

Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center

curatorial commentary Philippe Vergne discusses Paul Thek’s “Hippopotamus” from Technological Reliquaries (1965) Philippe Vergne, September 1999

There are two elements in this work. You have very clean boxes, which have this kind of industrial look and inside the box, you have something which is totally disgusting, a piece of rhinoceros meat, raw meat. It’s bloody. You have this kind of dynamic thing between the two elements: something clean with no emotion and something very violent. When Paul Thek started to do this work, he was positioning himself into a situation which was as a situation of the New York scene in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the major movements in this period was minimal art. Minimal art was this idea of the end of the artist. When we say, “minimal art”, you’re thinking Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol Le Witt that you can see also in the installation. The idea was that the project of the artist is almost what is the most important thing. The hand made … totally disappeared. The object was done almost in an industrial way. It was cold. The objects were presented for their abstract quality, for their concrete quality. Frank Stella when he defined his work I think was saying is to be seen is what you see and there is nothing else. When Paul Thek started to work, he, in a way, positioned himself against minimalism. He, through his work, was critiquing the way minimalism was too pure, the purity of minimalism, in a period of time where history was dealing with something like the Vietnam War. For him, it was very difficult that an artist stay neutral, stay pure and didn’t position himself regarding this historical fact; so, he decided to pervert the minimalist model, which is very much about suffering, about the way the body is wounded. So, it was addressing a critique both of the art movement of the moment and a critique of the historical facts. I also love him because when I look at the work, I cannot not think about writing by Ballard or movies by Cronenberg. I think there is very early on something which is totally about contemporary culture. When you move to the next gallery you’re going to see some other pieces which can address this issue. I think Paul Thek, very early on, was doing work that could have been done at the end of the 1990s. His work was discovered something like ten years ago by other artists who looked at his work and said, “Oh, my god! this guy is more interesting than what we thought,” or “We did not know the work.” Even if the artist is passed away, his work is still alive because he still informs us about art practice.

Philippe Vergne, Curator of Visual Arts, Walker Art Center, commenting on Paul Thek’s “Hippopotamus” from Technological Reliquaries (1965), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 1999.

Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center

curatorial commentary Richard Flood discusses Paul Thek’s “Hippopotamus” from Technological Reliquaries (1965) Richard Flood, September 1999

The piece that I feel the closest to is Paul Thek’s Hippopotamus, mainly because a number of years ago – maybe it was 1972 – I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania and there was an exhibition of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which was on the campus. I had never seen anything like it before, not anything. It just completely changed my understanding of what art could be. He was using traditional materials like bronze. There were a number of bronzes in there, but I’d never seen them used to achieve such a kind of homey effect. Somehow, everything, even if it was bronze, looked like it had been made out of mud. He was using newspapers. There were pieces which the curator had gone to a lot of trouble to bring in from various places and, then, to watch him turn the whole thing into an installation was enormously exciting. I just stumbled on it. I knew the curator who was very nice and let me hang around.

What Thek started crafting in the center of this double-tiered space was something called Uncle Tom’s Cabin – it’s a longer title and I’m not remembering it right now – which had as its core a bath tub fountain. I would just start talking to him while he was on breaks. He was a very conflicted Catholic and I was a very conflicted Catholic at that point. He was a lot more conflicted than I ever thought was possible. He was also an enormously troubled person about the state of the world and the state of the world then very much included Vietnam. He had punctuated the work that he was making radically because of Vietnam. He had originally been showing at Pace Gallery, which at that moment in time was very associated with minimalism and everything was very crisp, very right angled, very unyielding materials. He began to do these glass and steel vitrines but they were filled with corrosive flesh, which he was sculpting out of something called dental moulage, which is a very quick setting wax, and putting these horrifying lumps of flesh or in some cases beautifully crafted arms and legs that were sheathed in things like butterfly wings. So, it was either these limbs of heroes from this impossible mythological past or this raw flesh. It was really his response to an art world that he thought was completely incapable of responding to the urgency of the culture in which it existed.

Richard Flood, Chief Curator, Walker Art Center, commenting on Paul Thek’s “Hippopotamus” from Technological Reliquaries (1965), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 1999.

Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center