Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective

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Exhibition co-curators Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky discuss a selection of works by the legendary American artist, Paul Thek. The audio guide includes commentary by artist Neil Jenney and literary scholar Ed Burns, who also reads excerpts from the artist’s extensive writings.

Paul Thek, Untitled (Meat Piece with Flies), 1965, from the series Technological Reliquaries. Wood, melamine laminate, metal, wax, paint, hair, and Plexiglas, 19 × 12 × 8 ½ in. (48.3 × 30.5 × 21.6 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Judith Rothschild Foundation © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York © 2009 Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource, NY

ELISABETH SUSSMAN: I find that they have a real jewel-like presence in a curious way. They’re very intense and bright and shiny and they’re meant to sort of attract and repulse you.

NARRATOR: Thek crafted his meat pieces with exceptional skill to achieve the brilliance Elisabeth Sussman describes. Conservators at the Whitney have determined his basic technique: he began by covering a wire mesh core with beeswax, colored with oil paint. He sculpted the wax, adding materials such as nylon thread for hair and tiny glass beads to achieve a globular texture. Thin layers of day-glo paint and glossy resin make the meat look juicy. For this piece, he added large flies, special-ordered from Africa. Curator Lynn Zelevansky:

LYNN ZELEVANSKY: It's a hard thing to describe what for me is beautiful about this piece. But the beauty is in the contrast of materials, and Thek talked about this too, the coldness of the acrylic against the warmth of the wax and the paint that make up the flesh. You know, I don't know if I though it was beautiful per se, but what I thought was that it was a great example of what he was trying to say. . . . I mean, when you can say something in the clearest way that it can be said, that's beauty to me. . . .  So what you see inside is you see a piece of meat and it's just covered with flies so it's like, ‘We are flesh and the worms are eating us’ and that's what's there.