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A Narrative Biography

The following text is included in the catalogue "Paul Thek - The wonderful world that almost was" accompanying the shows at Witte de With, center for contemporary art, Rotterdam (1995-06-03 - 1995-10-08); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1995-12-07 - 1996-02-18); Fundació Antoni Tapies, Barcelona (1996-06-21 - 1996-09-02); MAC galéries contemporaines des Musées de Marseille, Marseille (1996-10-15 -1996-12-15). Biographhy: Roland Groenenboom

On November 2, 1933, George Paul Thek is born in Brooklyn, New York, as one of four children of parents of German and Irish ancestry. He is raised Catholic. Later, Thek reminisces: 'My mother was difficult. She raged and raged I remember. It was very painful....She would sit in the half dark, drink beer, wine, sometimes she wrote a poem: a melancholy little rhyming poem, pretty, sweet, of a happy family....I used always to draw at the desk in the dining room, asking my mother what to draw. What to draw ? A pretty girl she would say.'

1950 - 68 | 1968 - 72 | 1973 - 77 | 1978 - 83 | 1984 - 88

1950-54 In 1950, Thek studies at the Art Students League of New York and the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. From 1951- 54, he studies at the Cooper Union School of Arts, New York. Among his friends and fellow students are photographer Peter Hujar and painter Joe Raffaele. Thek starts writing poetry and creates set designs for student theater. He works as a waiter, a lifeguard, and as a clerk at the New York Public Library. He lives in the East Village, New York, and visits Cherry Grove, Fire Island, for the first time.

Thek moves to Miami, supporting himself by driving taxis, doing shop window displays, and by working variously in a bookstore, a botanical garden and as a puppeteer. He befriends Peter Harvey, a set designer, and the artist Charles Shuts. Together Thek and Harvey move back and forth between Florida and the Northeast Coast. They separate in 1959. In New York, Thek befriends the artist Ann Wilson.
In the mid-fifties, Thek makes drawings, mainly flower studies in charcoal and pencil, followed by abstract watercolors and monochrome oil paintings with flowers. In 1957, he has his first exhibition at the Mirrell Gallery in Miami.

1959-62 Thek lives in New York. He supports himself by designing textiles at Prince Studios. He meets the writer Susan Sontag. They become close friends. Sontag later dedicates her book Against Interpretation (1966) to him. In 1962, he paints Birth of Venus, showing an abstract motif suggestive of human flesh.

1962-64 Thek travels to Europe via Venezuela by containership. He visits Norway and The Netherlands. In Amsterdam he befriends the painter Franz Deckwitz. He settles in Rome.
In Rome, Thek meets Topazia Alliata of the Galleria Trastevere, which also shows Piero Manzoni and Pino Pascali. Alliata introduces him to the American art dealer Charles Moses, who runs the Galleria 88 in Rome. In 1963, Thek has a private viewing at Galleria Trastevere and an exhibition at Galleria 88, showing abstract landscapes as well as figurative paintings of body parts, at least one of which is framed by a television-like box. He calls these last pictures
Television Analyzations and refers to them as 'canvases involved in the mechanical-eye questioning of reality.' He writes about these pieces to Peter Hujar: 'I am extremely interested in the use, in painting, of the new images of our time, particularly those of television and the cinema. The images themselves, when isolated and transposed, offer a rich and for me exciting source of what I consider a new mythology. In addition, special effects created by flares, double exposure, slow motion, under + overlighting, the effects, images, produced by the lens with particular emphasis on the zoom lens, extreme sudden close-ups can be used creatively and have a strange dynamism that I find fascinating. These mechanical eyes present a visual poetry, usually unobserved, that could be roughly placed in the surreal.' At the invitation of Alliata, Thek spends the summer of, 1963 with Hujar on Sicily, where they visit the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo. Hujar photographs the catacombs, which later appear in his photo book Portraits in Life and Death (1976) together with portraits of Paul Thek, Susan Sontag, Ann Wilson and others. Thek makes La Corazza di Michelangelo, using a souvenir plaster cast of an ancient Roman warrior's armor to which he adds paint and wax details.

1964-66 Thek returns to New York. He and Peter Hujar discover Oakleyville, a secluded community on Fire Island, where they rent a cottage overlooking the bay. He spends time with artist Eva Hesse, art critic Gene Swenson and Lily Nova, Joe Raffaele, Susan Sontag and Ann Wilson. This circle later includes photographer Sheyla Baykal and art dealer Moke Mokotoff. Thek makes his first casts. He casts his genitals in plaster, adding silver leaf, hair and butterfly wings. He starts to work on the series Technological Reliquaries, plexiglass boxes containing realistic sections of flesh in wax. He also makes detailed drawings of monstrous human and animal figures.
The first of the so-called 'meat pieces' are exhibited in 1964 at Eleanor Ward's renowned Stable Gallery, New York, where Robert Indiana, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol also show. Art critic


Lil Picard comments on the show in Das Kunstwerk, December 1964: 'It was Reality plus. Perfectly done, insanely perverted and contrived. One wonders why this very young and able craftsman and graphic artist is obsessed with a scientific hell of reality. As so many today he believes in such a commentary on our time. And at this point it is an excellent statement.' In 1965, Thek meets Warhol and visits The Factory. Subsequently, he makes Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box. The Technological Reliquaries are shown in the group exhibition The Other Tradition at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia:and in a solo exhibition at the Pace Gallery, New York, in 1966, and at documenta 4, Kassel, in 1968.
With the series of Technological Reliquaries Thek explicitly refers to minimalism. In an interview with Gene Swenson in Artnews, April 1966, he comments: `The dissonance of the two surfaces, glass and wax, pleases me: one is clear and shiny and hard, the other is soft and slimy. I try to harmonize them without relating them, or the other way around. At first the physical vulnerability of the wax necessitated the cases; now the cases have grown to need the wax. The cases are calm; their precision is like numbers, reasonable.' In a later interview with critic Emmy Huf in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, April 1969, he says: 'In New York at that time there was such an enormous tendency towards the minimal, the non-emotional, the anti-emotional even, that I wanted to say something again about emotion, about the ugly side of things. I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art. People thought that it was a sado-masochistic trick. That did not even occur to me. But if they wished to see it like that, it is OK with me: sado-masochism at least is a human characteristic, at least it is not made by machine. When I started to realize that people recognized me only as the man-of-the-meat, I stopped it.'

1966-67 In New York, Thek, assisted by the artist Neil Jenney, starts to work on a full body cast of himself as well as a series of cast wax body parts in plexiglass boxes. His first environment, The Tomb, evolves, consisting of a wooden ziggurat painted pink and his body cast. The Tomb can be considered as yet another parody of minimal art.
The Tomb begins its exhibition tour in 1967 at the Stable Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, where it is renamed The Tomb - Death of a Hippie, which is a thorn in the flesh of Thek. 'The tomb never had anything to do with hippies....The press started all that,' he writes in a postcard to art critic Robert Pincus-Witten. Pincus-Witten writes in Artforum, November 1967: 'On one hand, he [Thek] obsessively and finely prevaricates on the theatrical confrontations of seemingly unanticipated situations and objects, and, on the other, seeks to create an unchanging and serene world, itself a metaphor of self-loss (schizophrenia) and death (catatonic paralysis).' The Tomb is shown again in the exhibition The Obsessive Image 1960-1968, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in 1968. Thek is awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy. He returns to Rome and Sicily. He befriends the Italian actor Sergio dei Vecchi.

1968 In 1968 Thek spends his first summer on the Italian island Ponza, where he draws and paints the landscape. Thek and Franz Deckwitz visit the Biennale di Venezia. In Venice, Topazia Mliata introduces Thek to Karl Ernst Jöllenbeck of Galerie M.E. Thelen, Essen, who invites him to prepare an exhibition. After Venice, Thek visits a Joseph Beuys exhibition in Munich, which greatly impresses him. Back in Rome, he makes a series of chairs and boxes with pieces of wax meat for his exhibition at Galerie M.E. Thelen. During transportation to Essen, the objects are seriously damaged. Thek starts repairing them in the exhibition space. When the exhibition opens, the restoration is not finished. After the opening, he keeps on repairing the works during gallery hours. When a piece is finished, he places it randomly in the gallery. One week before the end of the show, he completes the restoration process. The exhibition is entitled A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress: Objects to Theoretically Wear, Carry, Pull or Wave. It turns out to be Thek's first 'work in progress.' Thek meets Birgit Küng of Galerie Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne. Edy de Wilde, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and Pontus Hultén, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, invite him to prepare exhibitions.