When Andy Warhol filmed a Screen Test with him for a planned film called The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, artist Paul Thek truly was a beautiful boy. Clear-eyed and golden, even on black-and-white film, he was 31 and at the cusp of his career, obsessed with the glistening, waxy sculptures that would make him famous and vault him years beyond most of his art world contemporaries.
Made of melamine, wax, hair, metal, wood, plaster, cord and paint, and often encased in tinted glass, these pieces of “meat art” feature severed limbs of indeterminate origin, except perhaps to an avant-garde butcher. Arm or leg? Muscle or organ? Human or animal?
Officially, they're called Technological Reliquaries, a nod to their source of inspiration, a 1962 visit Thek made to the Capuchin catacombs. A silvery blue cross-section of some fleshy hunk is encased in glass. Large, glossy flies perch on a glistening black haunch. A pyramid of vivid, organic-looking meat made from decidedly inorganic materials pokes out from the wall. Divorced from their context within a living, moving frame of skeleton and muscle, the pieces are eerie, whimsical, ghastly and gorgeous.
Meat art is not all there was to Paul Thek, nor is that all there is of him in the Hammer show, “Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective.” There are dwarf paintings; water paintings; set design collaborations with Robert Wilson; playful, brightly colored 9×12″ canvases from his later period; remnants of his playful effigy, Death of a Hippie; cheeky sculptures like The Personal Effects of The Pied Piper; and even a stunning pencil sketch of Porza that reminds viewers of his exquisite talent for rendering.
Thek was known for working on his sculptures at night throughout an exhibit's run, so that day by day the installation would change until it reached its “final” form. No such luck here. Thek died of AIDS in 1988 at age 54.
Thek's iconic image is that of The Diver, a peach-colored slash of a nude male form slicing through a pale blue canvas. Hanging in the entryway of the exhibit, emblazoned on the cover of the Hammer's summer calendar, the figure is an analog for Thek himself, stretching beyond whatever conventions he had found.
Perhaps the most beautiful, or at least the sweetest, most personal piece in the show, is beneath this painting, hidden in plain sight. In a long narrow box are several pages from Thek's journal, in which he lists 96 Sacraments. Simple commandments, written by him, for him, they are reminders to be thankful. Most end with the directive (or is it a supplication?) “Praise the Lord.”
Do the dishes.
Write a letter.
See a dog.
To have dinner with somebody.
To have dinner alone.
To hold hands.
To go swimming.
To be just.
Praise the Lord.
“While there is time, let's go out and feel everything.”
“Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective” runs through August 28th at The Hammer Museum. Admission is free on Thursdays.