Walker Art Center

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An Artist and His Doppelgangers

By Richard Flood

An amazingly complex American artist, Paul Thek (1933–1988) began his career in New York in the 1960s with a series of works collectively titled Technological Reliquaries, created as a reaction against the war in Vietnam. They combined pristinely assembled, minimalist containers with brutal, wax-modeled chunks of meat or severed limbs (one of them,Hippopotamus, is in the Walker’s collection). Now, some 30 years later, chief curator Richard Flood fleshes out the story of an artist who was under-recognized in his own lifetime by talking briefly about his other important works.

In 1967, Paul Thek made one of the great, lost works in American art. The Tomb—Death of a Hippie was a large pink ziggurat containing a body cast of the artist attired in pink clothes and shoes. The tongue lolls from an opened mouth as in a swoon, the fingers of the right hand have been severed, and scattered around the body are offerings for the afterlife. The installation presented the artist as an eroticized, victimized vagabond; a creature shaped by Vietnam and Altamont, Kent State and Hair—a martyred hero for a new lost generation. In 1970, The Tomb came to Minneapolis in the Walker-organized exhibition Figures and Environments, which was installed in the auditorium of Dayton’s department store during construction of the Walker Art Center building. Years later, a badly damaged cast of the “hippie” was returned to Thek after an exhibition, but he refused to receive it; after storing it without pay, the shipper presumably destroyed it.

In 1973, Thek took on the persona of another antiheroic character who, like the hippie before him, was half savior and half destroyer. This project, The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, would haunt him until his death. His dream was to create many small bronze sculptures that would collectively represent the Piper’s campsite. During the winter of 1975–1976, Thek took up residence in Rome to be near the foundry where he was casting the bronzes. What happened between the artist and the foundry remains unclear, but in one version of the story, a dealer neglected to pay the foundry fees, which forced the seizure and destruction of many of the works. A year later, a selection of the bronzes was sold to a collector from the exhibition Paul Thek/Processions at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art (which marked the artist’s return to the United States). Another significant grouping of the Piper’s Effects was sold to another collector from a New York gallery exhibition in 1984.

The following year, Thek wrote to the new owner, asking her to underwrite the production of additional bronzes that he felt would honor his scenario: “My original idea for the Pied Piper objects was to do a chunk of woodland, a scene of nature, an out-of-doors vignette … as if a portion of a forest camping place had been turned into bronze. As if the encampment of the Piper, everything he had with him, as he sat before his campfire, had been changed to black bronze.” He then lists some of the works he would like to fabricate, like the Piper’s blanket and cloak (“it would have to appear to grow from and of the forest floor itself”), and sketches another piece (“a cube of earth”).

The letter entered the Walker Archives through a strange chain of events. A prep school received the work from the estate of a collector; packed loose in a crate, the bronzes were about to be thrown out when someone noticed a four-page letter among the small pieces and, after reading it, sought out the dealer representing Thek’s estate. Knowing of the Walker’s intense interest in the artist’s work, the dealer contacted the Walker, which in turn became the caretaker for both an important piece and a rich archival document that provides great insight into Thek’s frame of mind at the time and, most importantly, valuable information concerning his relationship with and future plans for the Piper’s Effects.

Thek died of AIDS in 1988, still very much an enigma as an artist and a man. Susan Sontag, who inscribed her volume of essays Against Interpretation to Thek in 1968, dedicated her book AIDS and Its Metaphors to his memory 20 years later. He never achieved the recognition he desired and deserved, although since his death, generations of younger artists have increasingly looked to him as an innovator and inspiration.

Paul Thek working on The Tomb in his studio, circa 1966

Photo © Peter Hujar Walker Art Center Archives