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Fine Art PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Paul Thek Exhibition Opens at the Carnegie Museum of Art

Carnegie Museum of Art presents Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, the critically acclaimed first major exhibition to explore the work of the legendary artist. Defying classification, Paul Thek (1933 –1988)—the sculptor, painter, and creator of radical installations who was hailed for his work in the 1960s and early ’70s. Opened at the Carnegie Museum of Art on February 5, 2011, and co-organized by Carnegie Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The exhibition debuted at the Whitney, where critics from the New York Times called it “a ragged, moving and much-anticipated retrospective”; the New Yorker called the exhibition “remarkable . . . [Thek] is too little known, and his rediscovery promises to have a galvanizing effect on young artists”; and Time Out New York said of Thek, “[t]his pioneer of installation art dodged many of the isms that defined his era and came up with a style completely his own.”

The title of the exhibition, Diver, refers to paintings that Thek made in 1969–1970 on the island of Ponza, off the coast of southern Italy, possibly inspired by the cover slab from the Tomb of the Diver, an ancient fresco unearthed in Paestum in 1968. It is also a metaphor for the artist’s plunge into the unknown and the ongoing pursuit of meaning that is present in all of Thek’s art.

Thek came to recognition after showing his sculptures in New York galleries during the 1960s. The first works he exhibited, called “meat pieces,” resembled glistening pieces of raw flesh housed in geometric Plexiglas boxes. After creating The Tomb in New York in the late 1960s—an astonishing installation featuring a life-sized effigy of the artist laid to rest in a pink ziggurat—Thek left for Europe. There he built extraordinary environments, drawing on religious processions, the theater, and the common experiences of everyday life, while often employing fragile and ephemeral substances such as wax, latex, sand, and tissues. He also worked in Paris with theater director Robert Wilson (who now administers Thek’s estate) and held exhibitions of his small sculptures and paintings on newspaper at galleries in Cologne and Paris. After almost a decade in Europe, where he had achieved a considerable degree of fame, Thek changed direction, moved back to New York, and turned to making small, sketch-like paintings. Thek enjoyed much attention in Europe during the 1970s, but never achieved the same notice in the United States.

Thek died in 1988 at the age of 54, from complications resulting from AIDS. Since his death, Thek has been rediscovered by younger artists, and interest in his work has been maintained abroad with surveys in Holland, and recently, a three-city traveling exhibition in Europe. But until Paul Thek: Diver, his work has not been seen in the U.S. on such a large scale.

Works of art in the show come from many private collections and institutions throughout Europe and the United States. Many of the 130 objects in the exhibition have not been seen in the United States in the decades since they were made; others have never been seen here at all. An exceptional number of Thek’s “meat pieces” (also called Technological Reliquaries), made of beeswax, painted with fluorescent paints, and enclosed in Plexiglas boxes, will be shown.

The exhibition includes such rare works as Untitled (Dwarf Parade Table), never before seen in this country, and Fishman in Excelsis, a latex cast of Thek’s naked body with multiple casts of fish clinging to it, bound to the underside of a table and suspended from the ceiling; the latter is one of a number of works from the collection of the Kolumba Museum in Cologne. Other important elements that were part of Thek’s now-lost European environments will also be shown here for the first time.

Respecting Thek’s own installation aesthetic and the ephemeral nature of his work, the curators are not attempting to reconstruct environments or exhibitions from Thek’s lifetime. In addition to many outstanding works of art, the exhibition includes vintage photographs by Peter Hujar, a photographer and Thek’s longtime partner, and a screen test of Thek done by Andy Warhol. Another key feature, never shown so extensively, are the artist’s journals, lent by Robert Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman Watermill Foundation.

Visitors to the museum may find some works familiar because they were included in the 2008 Carnegie International. Carnegie Museum Art is the second of three venues for this retrospective, which debuted at the Whitney in October 2010. After the Pittsburgh exhibition, the show will travel to the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, where it will be on view from May 22 to September 4, 2011.

Image: Paul Thek Untitled (Four Tube Meat Piece), 1964, 16 1/8 x 16 ¼ x 5 3/8 in. © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photo: Orcutt & Van Der Putten

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