Whitney Museum of American Art / October 21, 2010 – January 9, 2011
Paul Thek’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art felt thin, too curatorially spartan to reflect the variegation and vastness of the artist’s practice. Wanted stuff all over the place, all over the walls. An artist who lived on the margins and never fit in to the white cube. The most interesting parts were the archival photos and the frenetic handwriting in the sketchbooks. More deeply reflective of Paul Thek’s brilliant dilettantism than a few abstracted objects placed in their pristine settings.
A curatorial cop-out that the curator’s decided not to reconstruct one of the elaborate and complicated installations that the artist conjured up during his lifetime, but of which none exist, save a few relics which are suitably encased in transparent vestibules. Since the artist’s career wavered between anonymity and recognition during his lifetime, little attention was paid to the preservation of some of his masterworks. It’s a shame, when you think of how much is acquired by museums today that doesn’t hold a candle to Thek’s expansively influential body of work. But no one, except a handful of artists, really cared about what he was doing while he was alive, which explains the institutional lack.
Some of the eeriest works in the show are casts of Thek’s own corpse, affectionately created and monstrously ridiculous at the same time. Thek appears to have had a fascination with his own death that borders on a fetish; even more portentous given his illness and the actual entropy of his own body later on. The last room – Thek’s last exhibition at Alexander + Bonin, installed exactly the way the artist wanted it before dying of AIDS in the 1980′s – feels like the artist stripping himself naked. A few works on paper with child-like scrawls are minimal, but there’s a prevailing anxiety in those works, a dying man patiently waiting for the clock to strike his death-hour. A giant full-stop marks the end of an endlessly poetic life.