On ViewThe Watermill Center
July 31 – November 13, 2021
Watermill, New York
In 1988, when Paul Thek was in the late stages of his AIDS diagnosis and near death, he bequeathed Robert Wilson his estate. The two men were collaborators and friends, and while Wilson did not immediately want the responsibility of overseeing Thek’s estate, he complied. Having made work for the Moderna Museet, The Stedelijk Museum, and Harald Szeemann’s Documenta V, Thek was less known in the United States. It wasn’t until 2010 that The Whitney Museum of Art staged a retrospective of his work, which then traveled to The Carnegie Museum of Art and The Hammer Museum. His work has since become a beacon for a moment in time when so many were losing their lives to AIDS.
Some of the work on view in the Watermill Center’s two-floor exhibition was previously on display at the Whitney, but many of his most important pieces are being shown for the first time. Paul Thek: Interior / Landscape shines a light on the fact that Thek was an avid draftsman. He made pencil drawings of landscapes, still-lifes, friends, and self-portraits, while often not incorporating these drawings into his public practice. The Watermill Center features a diverse selection from his uvre, ranging from sculpture to painting, as well as works on paper. Of the ten that have never been on view before, an oil painting titled Sicily (1962–63) is of particular interest. A fairly large abstraction on linen stretched in a square format, the painting was made in Rome and can now be looked upon as a catalyst for the artist’s meat works for which he is well-known. Without a direct meat reference, the painting operates as a vivisection of sliced muscle, striated and textured. Tiny circular brushstrokes seem like magnified blood cells moving through a large vein, bright red with subtle yellow and green accents. This work, as well as most of what is included here, is on loan from a private collection.
Thek’s meat sculptures were all part of what he referred to as “Technological Reliquaries;” the first, Warrior’s Leg, appeared in 1963. While this work is not on view, the Watermill Center does include one official sculpture from this series. Encased in a glass vitrine with a red emblazoned “75” on the front panel, Untitled (1964), houses an object constructed of cast wax and resin, most closely resembling a glossy slab of freshly cut beef. It is a small, striking sculpture, sturdy yet fragile. While the meat seems to reference an animal presence, mythical or otherwise, it is also in dialogue with a broader part of humanity, life, and death. Beefiness, often viewed as a masculine trait, is present in this work; contained, owned, held.
Another eye-catching meat work, Untitled (Meat Cable) (1969), isn’t encased but rather extends into the space. Here, the “meat” component is made of wax and pigment wrapped around a metal cable. Unlike the contained work, the thick cable extends tautly between two walls in a corner, almost like a clothesline. The sculpted meat is wrapped around the cable, red, and almost grotesque. A third meat sculpture, Ferocious, (1971) is a mixed media work. A much looser portrayal of flesh and muscle, Ferocious isn’t as polished as the earlier works. This version portrays a crudely sculpted animal in a vitrine. It is a child-like diorama, filled with hand-modeled clay, feathers, several sticks, and dried leaves. There is a certain vulnerability to these works, an element that is raw but also needs to be somehow shielded or protected.
Of all the works on view at The Watermill Center, the drawings on paper are the most unexpected. They represent the artist’s movement, travels, likes and dislikes, and offer a particular glimpse into Thek’s life. There is an intimacy to the drawings that is unlike his painted or sculpted work. His presence remains in the delicate marks, unexpected yet actualized, even years after his death. If any reason is needed to travel to see Interior / Landscape, it is the opportunity to experience the phantasmagoric presence of Paul Thek serendipitously through these works on paper and one of his final paintings, Untitled (dust) from 1988. The painting has a loose greenish ground, speckled with blue and white smaller marks, almost dots. For the religiously inclined, it’s impossible to not think of Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”