Paul Thek

at the Arts Club of Chicago, through January 16

By Mark Swartz

Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Paul Thek belonged to the first generation of artists to see photographs of the earth from outer space. And though nobody could have been surprised to see a blue marble adrift in vast emptiness, the impact of these pictures must have been tremendous, especially on an artist given to pondering the big questions. Such images seem to have represented a lifelong challenge to Thek–threatening spirituality, eradicating the notion of a fixed center, and juxtaposing cosmic time with an individual’s brief time alive. He rose to the challenge with a series of works seemingly designed to comfort himself, but his efforts were often defeated by the bleak, awesome universe he knew was out there–the constant infinite void of those photographs.

An untitled painting from 1974, part of a display of Thek’s notebooks and two-dimensional works from 1970 to 1988 at the Arts Club of Chicago, is directly inspired by such photos. Thek paints the earth at the center of four actual sheets from the International Herald-Tribune, surrounding it with black, but he leaves enough of the newspaper exposed to show some of the more mundane concerns of the day: an article on a pop singer, an ad for Ashland Oil, a notice that the British Oxygen Company has acquired four million shares of Airco Inc. (Isn’t the air supposed to be free? If corporations are really buying and selling oxygen, what’s left for the rest of us to breathe?) And look, the Cubs beat the Cardinals.

Dust, from 1988, looks through the other end of the telescope to conflate eternal and temporary concerns. One of the last paintings Thek ever made, it’s composed of dark blue and white dots against a green background; the word “dust” floats across the bottom. It’s easy to imagine the artist gazing out the window, aware of the AIDS that would soon take his life but letting his mind wander to a perspective from which his personal loss would barely register. Even when painting a picture of dust on a windowpane, Thek kept his eye on the cosmos.

The two-dimensional work at the Arts Club represents more than enough richness and variety for a single show, but Thek did many other kinds of work. Taking in a lot of the art world’s ideas and trends of the 60s and 70s, he was involved in performance and did installations–though his itinerant ways kept him from identifying with any particular art scene. His sculpture, which often depicted bodies whole and fragmented, recently has become better known, especially in Europe, than it was during his life. In 1995 a Rotterdam museum mounted a show focused on his sculpture appropriately titled “The Wonderful World That Almost Was.”

Thek, who never rested content with the world, went to great lengths to find a piece of it he could tolerate. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, contained in a notebook, “I am OK, still trying to be ‘an artist’ in the secular world. A lot keeps happening, and as you know, the world is the world, very ‘worldly,’ etc. etc.” America was a recurring problem for Thek, not because he wasn’t appreciated here–though he wasn’t–but because it lacked the spiritual resources he needed. He left once in 1962 for two years and again in 1968 for ten years; his wanderings took him to Amsterdam, Rome, Cologne, Stockholm, and Paris. It was an exhilarating but exhausting lifestyle that permitted him to pursue multiple enthusiasms but not to devote himself to them for long.

Trying to mitigate the worldliness of the world, Thek blended his first religion, Catholicism, with whatever belief systems were handy, whether Eastern (consider his painting Jesus in the Arms of Krishna), art historical, animistic, or sexual. He was a proud hippie, making use of the customary chemicals to alter his world–temporarily at least. In the catalog for the Rotterdam show, Ann Wilson–an artist who knew Thek and belonged to a co-op with him–is quoted as saying, “Psychedelic drugs were an art supply for us at the time.”

When “psychedelic” and “art” appear in the same sentence, most of us run for cover, expecting Lava lamps or black-light posters of Jimi Hendrix. But Thek framed his cosmic questioning in less embarrassing terms. Rather than draw on sentimental, silly cliches, he produced a steady flow of fresh images. Some are sentimental (Bambi Growing), and some are silly (Self-Portrait as Hot Potato), but they’re not cliches.

The world is full of talented people with big ideas, but what distinguished Thek was the way he manipulated the perception of his own place in the world. Thek’s universe shrinks small enough for him to walk in it like a colossus, and it grows big enough to accommodate spiritual systems and star systems, history and prehistory. In his hands, an agave tree on Ponza–an island off the coast of Naples–makes you think about what the earth will look like after the human race dies out; a brontosaurus makes you think about the economic plight of the artist.

Thek’s vision was both too confined to produce even a single canvas and too large to fit into an ordinary museum. His notebooks may have been the most suitable showcase for his talents. He filled more than a hundred books over the course of 18 years, covering the pages with cartoons, letters, quotes, and drawings and in the process chronicling the haphazard, obsessive, self-conscious, egotistical workings of his mind. To compare them to the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci would be going too far, but I cannot think of another depository so full of ideas, sensual impressions, and moods.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “City, Rooftops, Chair” by Paul Thek.