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Paul Thek’s hippie meat

During his lifetime, and even until recently, Paul Thek is mostly unknown to the art world, but was ahead of his time. Looks wise, he could easily be a Brooklyn hipster, I was surprised when photos of him in his studio were from the 60s (and cute!). But superficiality aside, Thek was one of the first artists to create installations and environments in art- often in plexiglass vitrines. Sorry Jeff Koons, you are by no means original (we knew that anyway). One floor of the Whitney is now dedicated to a retrospective in his honor.
Inspired by an accidental visit to the Capuchin catacombs, where he and his lover saw corpses encased in glass coffins, Thek began creating “Meat Pieces.” These beeswax-cast sculptures resemble cross sections of flesh, and are encased in Plexi boxes. He cast human body parts for much of his work during the early 1960s, including a life size cast of himself, which was part of an installation called “The Tomb- Death of a Hippie.” (which no longer exists, but photographs are shown in a slide show).

In the late 60s, Thek left New York for Europe, abandoning his Meat Pieces for paintings and installations. Here, he flourished- Europe loved him. He had scores of gallery shows, some of which are recreated at the Whitney- an exhibition made to look like a street sale, installations of hanging flowers and candles. But when he returned in the 80s, it seemed he’d never existed. No one was left who remembered his work. He spent his days painting in his East Village apartment, or getting high, only having a few unpopular shows. He died from AIDs in 1988, and only posthumously did New York start to recognize his influence.
Walking through the Whitney retrospective, I did get a feel for an artist I’d never heard of. The collection felt complete, as I journey through the different stages of his life, seeing it through the changes in his art. His influence is obvious to artists who came after- from Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, to Matthew Barney, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy, as well as Jonathan Meese, and Thomas Hirschhorn. And at the Whitney, finally getting the New York recognition he deserves.



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