Nothing but Time
The newspaper works of Paul Thek, which began in earnest in late 1960's and continued unabated until his death in 1988, had a narrative arc defined by an idiosyncratic expression of hope and beauty, and ended in a more ambiguous state of disillusionment. They are narrative parables sharing as much with literature, history and religion as with the history of art. The early newspaper works at times resemble visceral children's illustrations depicting Thek's inimitable ideals of happiness and love with an eternal quality above and apart from the material world. Though he exhorted to "Fall in love with your life" in note pad musings, within the same page of unbridled optimism were signs of tragedy and torment, "We're all crying children together".1
Though the newspaper works appeared random and at times resembled writing more than drawing, as a whole they constituted a visual diary and travelogue. There was an ascetic quality to the systematic way in which Thek recorded his life continually over the entire course of his career. You can practically hear the silence, the meditative nature of the process of the making of the newspaper works but they are also imbued with the quality of sheet music that reverberates off the page. In Thek's work no subject evaded his mockery, mirth and empathy, a touch that managed to be both cynical and idealistic. Like fully formed pages from an oversized sketchbook, the newspaper works could appear classical, cartoonish, or like thought-bubbles, there was no telling. There were grapes on vines, potatoes, seascapes, landscapes, garden dwarfs, snakes, dinosaurs, hammers and sickles, and the Statute of Liberty—the whimsical and the lighthearted, but there was always more to be read. They offered an uncensored snapshot of Thek's mind's eye. These works were possessed of a many layered, philosophical, and ageless conceptual delicacy—a traditional conception of beauty in the hopeful, transcendent sense of the word. Not indulgent, self-congratulatory, or clichéd but celebratory and all embracing. On-its-sleeve emotional, and romantic nevertheless.
The spirit of Thek's newspaper works encapsulated a hippy disregard and disdain for the establishment—subverting and undermining history and authorship—while in effect rewriting the news. The works were defined by a sense of utility in their making, by way of sparse and reduced means, while yielding immense fruits from these daily labors. History, religion, and politics of the day were replaced with Thek's notion of a more tolerant Catholicism of his own devices. These paintings obliterated history while simultaneously creating it and traversed over the daily account of current affairs. Thek didn't re-cite history, the canonized version or his own, but erased it like Rauschenberg's notorious vandalism of a de Kooning drawing. He then added aesthetically and conceptually to the end product of Rauschenberg's de Kooning gesture atop the everyday chatter of the International Herald Tribune. What became a routine for Thek was in a sense passive (repetitive markings on blotted-out newsprint) and concurrently, a Hegelian overtaking of the reportages on the condition of the world, ingesting the pulp in the process. In the many variants of his works, Thek foresaw the death of the hippy and the innocence it engendered at the hands of inexorable technological and industrial progress. Or what was perceived as progress. These newspaper artworks defaced the currency of the times, prior to the onset of the worldwide gaggle of Googlers, when newspapers held greater sway in the conveyance of news and information. Thek foresaw the condition of humanity in retreat in the face of the forward march of technology. What passes for life today largely appears on a glass screen.
Society has always devoured current events, thirsting for knowledge of the world around us; in turn, Thek consumed the news itself, marking his time and space with little concrete poems, in effect soiling the official account of the daily news like a housetrained dog. Creating lasting newspaper art was in contravention to the inherent instability, and valueless-ness of a given newspaper page. The disposable, good-for-a-day shelf life of newspapers was transformed into something immortal and everlasting, but surely the non-archival tendencies of his medium of choice were not lost on Thek. Old newspapers yellow and turn to dust over time unless measures are taken to preserve them, such as mounting on a fixed surface. Yet one slice of painted newspaper sandwiched between two pieces of Plexiglas was Theks favored method for serving them to the public. The preceding expresses the ever self-contradicting and self-negating nature of the artist himself: this was painting as wasting asset, the lifespan of the art slipping away unless curative action taken. Like the meat works, the newspaper paintings had decay imbedded, plain to the eye and touch. Like the meat works, the newspaper works symbolized fragility, vulnerability, and fallibility of the body.
By the late 1960's Thek was abroad much of the time, hence the use of international papers with a ready supply at hand, but this could also be said to indicate yearning for what was left behind, a feeling of being homesick, and maintaining ties, a link, with the States. Thek's self-effacing paintings might also have been an attempt to combat his absence from an America moving along without him. Missing from the New York-centric scene for so long without adequate representation in the US throughout the years, Thek was for all purposes presumed dead. How it must have eaten at him. In a way he was symbolically reinserting himself back into the picture. By using newspapers, Thek made a custom of staying abreast, keeping track, and crossing-off the passing days on a calendar. The habit of continuously working on newsprint, the familiar connotation of the newspaper—something we do first thing every day, has the characteristics of an absolution, a ritual—a discipline which is the byproduct of the hand and a confirmation of a daily work ethic.
These paintings also involved chance, in as much as the contents of a given newspaper page was never uniform or predictable and at times resembled games and brainteasers in the manner of Duchamp, employing wordplays and backwards text. Some were rendered as technical tour de forces, while others appeared crude and purposefully raw, reversing the old master level of skill he effortlessly displayed, flaunting built-in contradictions. Opposite a blank canvas, the newspaper paintings functioned as records contrasting the public and private; each work contained an unfolding social realism coupled with the personal memoir of a nearly solitary life. Entrenched in the seemingly arbitrary was the inevitability of the day-to-day goings on in the world. Thek accomplished the consummate high wire act, a feat as near impossible as improbable, of creating something conceptual and dazzling in a form practically invisible—shorn pages of a daily newspaper.
Braque and Picasso early on adapted the use of newspaper in paintings and collages cognizant of the multiple meanings implicit in such texts, but with Thek there was no collage, rather the use of the newspaper as a conceptual girder, a structure upon which to underpin the image with a built-in obsolescence like a disposable lighter. Robert Smithson's notion of entropy depicted inherent disorder in various systems and entailed intervening in the natural landscape with human means of obstruction, like a slow glue pour in a strip mine, or shards of mirror deposited amongst a pile of boulders in a quarry. Decay, ephemera, and deterioration have long been components of Thek's works from the meat to the scatter installations, not to mention the bulk of work abandoned through unpaid storage bills, museum neglect and nonfeasance on the part of the artist. For Thek there was a negation, exhaustion in the demanding, Judeo-Christian work ethic he firmly practiced until the end of his life.
One can imagine a detente with Warhol in which the means of mechanical reproduction were willfully laid down, in place of the reintroduction of the movement of the artist's hand along the surface of a given page, a subject (renderings of his own pencil or brush-in-hand) frequently visited upon by Thek. The creations of Thek were on a prodigious scale, almost equal to the repetitive output of the screenprint presses of the times and touched upon some of the same Warholian issues of all manner of consumption and political folly. The Brillo Box sculpture Thek obtained and used to house his chunk of meat underscored his ambivalence and awe at the icon of easy art, and his attempt to shove some vitality and humanity back into the box.
Richard Long marks time by taking long walks, accumulating rocks and finally arranging them in patterns. Formally, a Thek newspaper painting was a simple geometric picture plane, a rectangle of pigment floating within the rectangle of the printed page, in the spirit of Jasper Johns saying to take an object, do something to it and do something else. Thek preserved and saw beauty in the mundane, fleeting character of the everyday by painting vignettes over the daily paper, with fragments of the news peeking through around the edges of the compositions. In doing so, he cast a veil over the main import of current events, partially obliterating and obscuring them, but always left a fleeting peep. He didn't so much as kill-off the original text and image as damage it. Only a mist of the record of the time remained.
On Kawara repeatedly makes uniformly formatted paintings of a given day, date and year that compress a span of 24 hours to its most elemental form, with little or no visual dynamic. Thek went further when he wedded the conceptual effects of time to beauty. And he was the rare possessor of the painstakingly learned technical acumen to bring it off; this is something as uncommon today as it was at the onset of conceptualism. Franz West has likewise draped newspapers over furniture and installations, anchoring his works in the here and now: in West's sculptures we are sitting on history, in Thek's paintings we are unwittingly surfing over it while savoring the delight of a handmade image. Resembling the role of newspapers in earnestly spreading a message, Thek felt compelled to passionately communicate through his efforts.
Rather than refer to each and every artist that employed press as platform, suffice it to say that Thek's two-dimensional dioramas were like looking through a keyhole into his personal world of imagination and concerns couched in the moment in which they were completed. Thek depicted Rembrandt in his notebooks, referenced Van Gogh in his writings, and employed the colors and brushwork of Monet. By using newspaper as palette and canvas, Thek made painting instantly historical, affixing himself to his era like a leach or parasite, physically inserting himself into advertising, politics, business and sport—and art. His means of expression were lowly and humble and readily available on every street corner at every minute of the day; the newspaper works were unassuming and scruffy like Thek himself and echoed the chore-like manner in which he took to chronicling his life. These pieces could be somewhat abject, while retaining the original function of explicating current events and occurrences beyond our immediate grasp. A delicate, feeble resource in the hierarchy of artistic media, newspaper could be seen as inferior not only to canvas but to drawing paper as well; but weakness was something valued by Thek, something in which he found strength and solace.
When Thek wasn't painting on newspapers he was hanging them and discarding them in crumpled piles throughout the freewheeling, biblical and politically themed, room-scaled installations he constructed. They were his portable clocks to root things, freeze things in time. By choosing to save, preserve and utilize lowly newspapers, Thek was spinning garbage into gold (aesthetically, anyway) while stopping time in amber. Thek recycled before recycling. By the1980's the city was going through an economic explosion of art, ready money and glamour. Thek was left out of this renaissance. There was cocaine snowing from the ceiling of Studio 54 literally and figuratively, and all was flash and glitter. This did not serve the politically ambitious but physically modest works of Thek very well. He responded by purposefully making work he himself termed bad painting to speak in the vernacular of 1980's style painting (though still unassuming in scale), yet concurrently to critique what he saw as a well of mediocrity.
With the infamous, probing list of questions he required of his Cooper Union classes in the early 80's, taught for income, Thek took jabs at smugness, grandiosity, and pretension with interrogations on money and waste, and other largely personal inquires. These queries put to his students bordered on trespass, but Thek was not concerned with superficial meanings in his own life and work, nor in others.
Concurrently, AIDS in New York in the early 1980's was like an untold scourge claiming the lives of many and especially hitting hard the creative fields. Sexual mores came under reassessment to an extent previously unknown and homosexuals were the human face of a contagious, incurable plague, inciting fear and further prejudice. It is hard to remember a time when such a diagnosis meant invariably imminent death. During the same period the prices of a Julian Schnabel painting the size of a house went from a few thousand to a hundred thousand virtually overnight, such was the contrasting frivolity of the art world. All the while Thek was creating small drawings and paintings on paper and board of a throwaway sensibility. Rooftop sketches, landscapes, fruits and vegetables, still lifes from a time past out of touch with the inflated gesture of big for the sake of big. This was a market rife with hype and hyperbole of talent (not dissimilar the 00's) from the likes of the Italian trio then taking New York by storm, the three C's: Sandro Chia, Francisco Clemente, and Enzo Cucchi. In the Spring of 1985 Clemente alone had a triple venue show, embraced by collectors and critics alike, at Leo Castelli, Mary Boone and Sperone Westwater. What looked like an ad hoc flourish on a sheet of newspaper by Thek must have appeared to pale, if register at all, on anyone's radar by way of comparison. Though clear now from the 1980's that volume would not replace content, at the time, Paul Thek was cast aside from the glamorization and expansion of the art market, and the rollicking community that inevitably adhered to it.
Now, artists barely gaining their footing are embraced by market and museums alike, directly out of university studios. Things eschewed by Thek during his lifetime such as gratuitous shock, market cultivation, and self-branding (without trace of poetry or irony) are among the commercial stratagems on the road to approbation and material wealth. Working in a supermarket and cleaning hospital rooms at what should have been an apex of his career and in the latter part of his life for most would seem demoralizing, but for Thek was a refuge. Thek's career was a mature, slow burn of incremental strides, but still largely overlooked in the USA. Paul Thek would have been 75 years old in 2008 (b. 1933, Brooklyn, New York) yet without a major US museum retrospective to date, though debate lingers at a few institutions. Thek's was a life of wanting and suffering in the name of a God that for Thek meant art, creativity and above all else, productiveness. Moving back to New York in late 1970's left Thek out of touch, out of sight and out of the minds of those who made up the New York art scene. This left him demoralized and unable to work for a brief period, pained by a crisis of meaning in his art.
In the late works, the subject matter of the newspaper paintings shifted possibly in relation to Thek's declining health, physical and mental, and lack of professional acceptance. The full onset of AIDS and the resultant deterioration of mind and body contributed to a content shift in the late works to a more subdued, internalized, less defined state of things. There is the muddy haze of the 1981 abstraction "Untitled (Little Yellow Pitchfork)" circa 1981 featuring a small pitchfork lost in a mucky field of brown, the tool of hapless farmer and devil alike. From the same period is "Untitled (Brick Wall) from 1982 that resembles a familiar pastiche of a modernist, geometric abstraction. There was a simultaneous vein that referenced dejection, isolation, and bitterness festering in Thek noticeable in works that struck out via subtle jibes and attacks. A 1987 painting on board entitled "An Erotics of Art" was no more than an infantile, fleshy-colored mess with badly drawn female parts, while the newspaper work "The Face of God" from 1988, consisted of a crudely drawn face of a clock: is it a cruel, cold god reduced to nothing but finite, predetermined time? Offsetting his need to connect with others through his work, Thek harbored intent to abdicate, to remove himself. The earlier optimism and wide-eyed enthusiasm were replaced by doom and gloom.
Thek was disturbed by what appeared like collusion and corruption on the part of the art world to purposefully reject him; he felt excluded from a club of his peers and the accompanying whirlwind around them that ensured success and acclaim. This all must have been experienced as a tragic fall from grace from the early acceptance of his noted Technological Reliquary series. Throughout it all, Thek never completely lost his sense of hope that someday he would be recognized, but he came to the conclusion that someday would in all probability be posthumous. In general, Thek's work had the quality of outsider art, which in a sense it was, due to its utter neglect during his lifetime. For Thek, work was all there ever was: it was emboldening and above all, holy, but for Thek work was never fully calm, which wrought uneasiness and anxiety throughout his life, and resulted in an indeterminate and unfulfilled journey.
Near the end, Thek purposefully abandoned the refinement and representational insight of his earlier works reflecting his physical and emotional state, afflicted by an incurable, stigmatized disease and career neglect in his homeland. In the last newspaper works, gone are the childlike exuberance and celebration of nature, replaced by a duller form of abstractionism, signifying loss of love, innocence, and life. His version of Yankee enthusiasm, cheerfulness and energy, which remained throughout his sojourn in Europe, were hardheartedly quelled. After a shortened but fertile lifetime of unstoppable invention, Thek became a curmudgeon scarred by disregard and inattention. Even though he was cut down prematurely, Thek still managed to produce astounding, prescient and unparalleled work in every conceivable medium. The breadth of the newspaper works alone reflect a military discipline and self-control hardly seen during the time, and rarely so today. Thek's was a restless and relentless pursuit only now being taken seriously into consideration in relation to art before and after. Like Tonio Kroger, Thek resembled the character in the novella by Thomas Mann, with his nose firmly and forlornly pressed against the wrong side of the window of a big party where everyone is frolicking, singing, dancing (and making more money), but during his lifetime, he would always remain on the outside, uninvited.
"I sometimes think that there is nothing but time, that what you see and what you feel is what time looks like at the moment."2 Nothing but time can suggest a metaphysical expanse, a death sentence, or both. In Thek's case, hopefully the passage of time will ameliorate the shameful lack of recognition for his deserved output.
1 Paul Thek, Handelsblok Sketch Book, 1969-70, page 36
2 Processions Catalogue, Suzanne Delehanty, 1977, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, page 58 referencing interview with Thek and Delehanty.
Edited by Harald Falckenberg and Peter Weibel
8 1/2 x 11, 640 pp., 300 color illus., 200 b&w illus.