The recent exhibition of Paul Thek’s work at Hannah Hoffman Gallery was surprisingly pretty. The Thek it portrayed seemed to have been an introspective sort, given to naive drawings of flowers and sensitive paintings of the sea, rather than the radical boundary-pusher he generally was. The show was arranged across three gallery spaces. Among the works in the first room were two early drawings, Abstraction of Flower and Study of Blossoms (both 1957), that feature windblown dandelions quickly sketched on newsprint with torn edges. These works convey a sense of ephemerality and have an intimate quality.
The second gallery displayed nine compositions executed in watercolor, pen, and pencil that depict landscapes and interiors in a more studied manner. Every hinge and electrical socket, for instance, is lovingly detailed in Untitled (interior), ca. 1973, which shows a view from a kitchen into a living room. A few of the works feature six squares that resemble frames on a film storyboard (though some of them remain blank). The squares in Untitled (5/9/70), 1970, present multiple glimpses of the sea, mostly through overgrown foliage. Many of the pieces in this room offered such partially obscured views, with the tip of a building or the top of a telephone pole just in eyeshot, the images imparting the feeling that some latent event is on the horizon, about to reveal itself.
Not everything in the exhibition was so subtle. In the 1971 sculpture Untitled (Ferocious), a ripped-open animal’s head rendered in plasticine, its insides appearing as a bloody tangle, is housed in a plexiglass vitrine. In Untitled (Dinosaurus), also from 1971, a plasticine depiction of a similarly exposed dinosaur inhabits a wooden art-shipping crate whose interior has been painted with landscapes composed of volcanos and pink skies.
While these sculptures offer a certain amount of gore, the fact that the animals are imagined or extinct makes them far less shocking than the grisly portrayals of severed human flesh that Thek so compellingly created—which were represented here in a single work, Untitled (Meat Cable), 1968–69, shown in one corner. Comprising four wads of red wax strung along a slender steel chain, this work is a rather pared-back incarnation of the disturbing meaty chunks that Thek frequently rendered in his “Technological Reliquaries” series. Made during the heyday of Minimalism in New York, Thek’s corporeal creations were genuinely subversive. Yet his position as an iconoclastic figure who firmly dissociated himself from the prevailing trends of contemporary art was barely articulated in this sanitized retelling of his career. Sure, there was the occasional jolt of weirdness—as with the wig-draped arm in an untitled “Technological Reliquary” from around 1966–67 and the grasping hand in Untitled (Hand with Ring), 1967. But these body parts are accessorized and colorfully painted in such a way that they read clearly as artificial representations.
In one of the drawings on view, You Cannot Resist My Wave (1979), a sketch of a waving hand beckons the viewer. This seemingly simple overture is turned into a challenge by a statement written toward the bottom: HE SENSED THAT THE OTHER WAS NOT USED TO ANY REAL EMOTION. A more representative exhibition of Thek’s work, including more of the artist’s “Technological Reliquaries,” would have better conveyed this provocative attitude, which compels us to consider the authenticity of our own desires and ambitions, housed as they are in fallible vessels.