Thek Working on the Tomb Figure, 1967, printed 2010 by Gary Schneider, pigmented ink print, 121⁄2 by 181⁄2 inches.
IT WAS THE SPRING OF 2009. Ever since I had begun to work at the Peter Hujar Archive three years earlier I had been suggesting to Peter's good friend Stephen Koch, director of the archive, that we retrieve what Stephen referred to as "The Trunk" from his New York apartment's basement and bring it to the archive's office. (The archive administers the estate of the late photographer [1934-1987], who is best known for his sensitive, classical, black-and-white portraits of artists and intellectuals from the downtown New York avant-garde community of the 1970s and early 1980s.)
Stephen had told me that Peter's trunk was filled with contact sheets, and that it had been kept in storage since his death. I expounded on what I felt was the art historical importance of contact sheets, but the archive possessed limited office space. As well, the archive's primary holdings-the more than 4,000 vintage gelatin silver prints by Hujar-had yet to be completely inventoried. (This was my primary job at the archive.) Furthermore, Stephen explained that while Peter did look at contact sheets a good deal to determine which shot to enlarge, he never exhibited them or considered them to be even close in importance to his (characteristically 16-by-20-inch) prints. Accordingly, the unspoken agreement between Stephen and me was that when I finished my inventory of the prints, we'd go and get the trunk.
This was far from how things turned out. Well before I had completed the inventory, Elisabeth Sussman, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, contacted Stephen to request prints of the roughly 20 photographs Hujar had made of the artist Paul Thek (1933-1988). Sussman wanted to see them as part of her research for the Thek retrospective she was co-organizing with Lynn Zelevansky, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, which would open at the Whitney in fall 2010. The retrospective would be the most significant effort yet to reintegrate Thek's work into the art history of the 1960s and 1970s, which has consistently disregarded his production. Even though Thek's work was frequently exhibited and well-received by critics between the years 1964 and 1976, it was an anomaly within the Pop- and Minimalism-dominated New York art world. [ Paul Thek (in hooded sweatshirt), 1975, gelatin silver print, 17 by 14 inches. ]
Early on, at the moment of Minimalism's ascendance, Thek was exhibiting meticulously rendered "meat pieces," which later became known as "Technological Reliquaries." Initially, from 1963 to 1966, these works were wax hunks that looked like human flesh in some instances and sea-creature or alien meat in others. Beginning in 1966, Thek fashioned futuristic warrior relics out of hyperrealistic casts of his own arms and legs. Both the meat works and the "relics" were encased in (often fluorescent-yellow) Plexiglas and glass. The housing of meticulously crafted simulations of flesh within transparent cubes sharply contradicted the cool detachment of Minimalism and Pop.
In 1967, Thek stopped making art objects for the market (though later in his career he returned to the object). He moved to Europe and embarked on the creation of groundbreaking, large-scale, richly detailed immersive environments, stylistically removed from the much more Conceptual tendencies then coming to the fore in both Europe and the U.S. In 1996 art historian Stefan Germer, cofounder of the journal Texte zur Kunst, proposed that these installations could be seen as a precursor to certain artistic inclinations coming into vogue in the mid-1990s, such as institutional critique and collaborative work as social praxis. Thus, Germer proffered Thek as the Duchamp of the 1990s.1