When I went to the Whitney Museum in December, I had no idea who Paul Thek was. It was the first major U.S. museum exhibition of this artist who "achieved almost cult-like status among artists... during his lifetime..." 1 In the 1960s, his sculptures shown in New York — so-called "meat pieces" looking like chunks of raw, decaying flesh — gained him wide recognition. The prevailing tendency on the art scene at that time was toward aesthetic and emotional Minimalism, but Paul Thek went in the opposite direction. According to the artist, he wanted "to say something about emotion, about the ugly side of things."
And, indeed, his exhibition at the Whitney was chock full of ugly things and, truth be told, I couldn't make sense of what I was looking at and after the obligatory walk-through, I left the museum dismissing the whole enterprise. But a few days ago, seeing this traveling exhibition in Los Angeles at the UCLA Hammer Museum, I responded to his art totally differently. At the Whitney, the exhibition looked very formal and rather cold, art works overwhelmed by the austere architecture of the museum galleries. Here at the Hammer, the installation is dramatically different: much more intimate and personal.
Looking at Paul Thek's individual works — paintings, drawings, sculptures — I am intrigued by their range from slightly inept to totally gripping. It's the totality of his works that makes a profound impression on a visitor, especially if one has the courage to overcome a sense of human fragility and the shadow of death lurking around the corner. Fragments of human bodies, for which the artist used himself as a model, is the recurrent subject in this exhibition and a visitor would be well advised to spend time going through the exhibition catalogue, full of additional and fascinating visual information.
After spending most of the 1970s in Europe, where his art was especially well received, the artist returned to the United States to find himself virtually forgotten. Poverty-stricken in the last years of his life, Paul Thek died of AIDS in 1988.
And if that is not mournful enough, how about the exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where several dozen monks are lined in a funeral procession, lamenting the death of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, who has been soundly dead for the past 600 years. This is a once in a lifetime chance to see these 37 marble sculptures decorating the tomb of the Duke of Burgundy. The tomb is on display in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, France, but while the Museum goes through renovation, the sculptures are being sent on an international exhibition tour. I saw and loved them at the Metropolitan Museum a year ago, but now, at LACMA, they are exhibited to greater effect, allowing you to see and examine each and every one of these 16-inch tall figures even more up close and personal than at the Met.
The remarkable thing about these late-Medieval sculptures is the richness of realistic details expressing states of grief in their posture, gestures and facial expressions. Either hidden under hoods or exposed, their faces are individual portraits of real people going through deep emotions. At the Met, I marveled at the richness of the movement and variety of gestures conveyed by these marble mourners, but displayed here at LACMA, they reveal so much more. What a sad but aesthetically rewarding experience to observe them mourning in front of us. We can almost hear them crying, praying and lamenting.
1 According to Ann Philbin, Director of the Hammer Museum.
Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective
The UCLA Hammer Museum, May 22 - August 28, 2011
The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 8 - July 31, 2011
Banner image: (L) The Mourners, installed at the Metropolitian Museum of Art, photo by Sara Krulwich, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (R) The Mourners, installation image, photo by AFP