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Born in New York, Paul Thek studied briefly at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute in 1950 and at the Cooper Union from 1951 to 1954. Thek left New York in 1963 for a year-long sojourn in Europe. He traveled to Sicily with photographer Peter Hujar, who was a close friend and lover; their visit to the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo would have a profound impact on Thek’s art. Upon returning to New York, he began creating works that reflected his experiences in Italy as well as the rituals and symbols of his Roman Catholic upbringing. Most important among these were a group of sculptures that he called Technological Reliquaries, or “meat pieces.” These meticulously constructed objects adhered to the same basic structure: a hyper-realistic piece of glistening, bloody meat sculpted in wax and paint and housed in a geometric, Plexiglas vitrine.
In 1967, the Stable Gallery in New York held a groundbreaking show of Thek’s now-lost work, The Tomb, which included a life-size effigy of the artist laid to rest in a pink ziggurat. The effigy—which Thek and fellow artist Neil Jenney had dressed in a suit jacket and jeans and painted a pale pink—was surrounded by goblets and other funerary items. Soon after the exhibition, Thek left for Europe again, where he was invited to mount one-person exhibitions in several major museums. He turned these opportunities into art-making experiences, enlisting an evolving group of artist-friends to create immersive installations that he called Processions. These ephemeral environments incorporated elements from art, literature, theater, and religion, often employing fragile substances, including wax and latex. Thek’s Processions included two surrogates for himself, one popularly known as the “Dead Hippie” (which had first been presented in The Tomb) and the other a cast of his entire body covered with fish, called Fish Man.
In 1976, Thek moved back to New York and turned to making small, sketch-like paintings on canvas and newspaper, although he continued to create environments in key international exhibitions. With his frequent use of highly perishable materials, Thek accepted the ephemeral nature of his art works—many of which were dispersed or disposed of. By the 1980s, almost nothing of his work had been acquired by institutions, and he had fallen out of favor with the New York art world. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, Thek continued to work until his death the following year, producing a number of works that meditate on mortality, bearing inscriptions such as “Dust” or “Time.”