Thursday, November 27, 2014


the first large snowflakes
     dizzily to the ground
while flowers bloomed inside

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline Reading, 1962

Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline Reading, 1962

"Death and Transfiguration" Mike Kelley on Paul Thek

Originally published with the subtitle “A Letter from America,” Kelley’s essay on Paul Thek was commissioned by Daniel Buchholz for the catalogue of the first major exhibition of Thek’s work after his death in 1976 (Paul Thek, Turin, Castello di Rivara, September 1992, pp. 15–20). The cat- alogue also featured essays by Jean-Christophe Ammann and Gregorio Magnani. A German translation of Kelley’s text was published in Texte zur Kunst (Cologne), December 1992, pp. 43–49.
Nothing can prevent me from recognizing the frequent presence of images in the example of the multiple image, even when one of its forms has the appearance of a stinking ass and, more, that ass is actually and horribly putrefied, covered with thousands of flies and ants; and, since in this case no meaning is attachable to the distinct forms of the image apart from the notion of time, nothing can convince me that this foul putrefaction of the ass is other than the hard and blinding flash of new gems.
Nor can we tell if the three great images—excrement, blood and putrefaction—are not precisely concealing the wished for “Treasure Island.”
Being connoisseurs of images, we have long since learned to recognize the image of
Paul Thek, The Tomb—Death of a Hippie (1967). Wax figure in wooden structure. 101 x 125 x 125 ins. Installation view at Stable Gallery, New York, 1967. Photo: John D. Schiff. Courtesy Estate of George Paul Thek and Alexander and Bonin, New York.
desire in images of terror, and even the new dawn of the “Golden Age” in the shameful scatol- ogous images.
Salvador Dalí, “The Stinking Ass” (1932)1
Looking at Paul Thek’s bio, it’s interesting to discover that he had been showing consistently in art museums and galleries, and had been written about regularly in the art press, from the mid-1960s.2 This came as a surprise, since I had always thought of Thek as an “artist’s artist”—one of those shadowy figures who seem to exist only by word of mouth and are known to makers of art but not to those who respond to or record it. Why then, if Thek was always so present in the art world, has he passed so completely out of its history? He is not in any major United States museum collections, there is only one monograph on his work, now long out of print, and he is rarely included in the anthologies that purport to chronicle American art of the 1960s.3 One example of Thek’s marginal- ization can be found in Gregory Battcock’s influential anthology Minimal Art, in which he is repre- sented by a single photograph (of one of his most reduced “technological reliquary” sculptures).4 Neither this piece, nor Thek’s work as a whole, is mentioned anywhere in the anthology; and the caption accompanying the single reproduction gives the reader no clue that the pristine Plexiglas structure houses a realistic wax depiction of meat—information that is crucial if Thek’s work is to be differentiated from the abstract sculptures grouped around it in the book. One has the feeling that art history has purposely misrepresented Thek—or left him out entirely.
Though always quite well received when he was actively making art, for some reason Thek’s work was seldom viewed as an appropriate representation of that time. Now, all of a sud- den, he is being written back into history. Why? One obvious reason is that so much recent art looks like Thek’s. Perverse takes on minimalism, “body art,” and “scatter art” dominate the New York galleries at the moment. And the critics seem to have been caught with their pants down, surprised and unable to account for such developments.5 The works of Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Charles Ray, Cady Noland, John Miller, Paul McCarthy, and many others need a lineage to explain them. Paul Thek is the man . . . maybe. The problem with digging up influences previously thought to be unim- portant is that it makes the revisionist look stupid for not seeing their importance all along. The way to remedy this unpleasant situation is to label the precursor as aberrant, as a freak of history. This
is the strategy that produces “visionary” artists, ones who can only be discussed in terms of later artistic discourses, not their own. Thek has been transformed into a visionary to explain and give credence to this later generation of artists. Yet discussion of Thek should obviously be grounded in his contexts in the 1960s and 1970s, not in 1990s art, and to label him as aberrant is willfully to forget a whole group of other artists (Lucas Samaras, Tetsumi Kudo, Ed Kienholz, Yayoi Kusama, Peter Saul, and others) whose work doesn’t match our current understanding of 1960s art. All these artists approached the trash heap of 1960s counterculture a little too closely, which is the real reason for their exclusion from art history, and the reason they are labeled as aberrant. They were made to disappear, dealt a critical death blow. Unfortunately, Thek is literally deceased. He’s not around to argue his place in history, to set records straight.
Fortunately, Thek’s work short-circuits any sort of easy rescue job. For every aspect of it that is currently “acceptable,” there are just as many that are gravely embarrassing to us now. Iron- ically, the overriding theme of many of his works is death and rebirth. So much so that Thek seems to point an accusatory finger at us and call out, “fate has decreed that I would return.” And so he has, but it is a return fraught with problems. We are made to feel guilty when faced with it.
America’s problem with Thek mirrors our culture’s problem with the 1960s as a whole. It’s amazing how different the art world’s depiction of the decade is from the current political admin- istration’s treatment of the same period. To the art world, the 1960s was a glorious, almost classi- cal, epoch. Art was cool, reasonable, and in touch with the national identity. The ‘60s was the last golden age of modernism, before the fall orchestrated by postmodernism. Compare this to the tale told by the Reagan/Bush clan. For them the 1960s was the L decade (for those unfamiliar with American political terminology, the L word is “liberal,” the initial-only usage punning with the un- mentionable F word): the out-of-control period directly responsible for America’s economic and so- cial decline. It was a period of dirt, mysticism, drugs, and anarchy: America’s Dark Ages. This is Paul Thek’s 1960s—which is why he is so hard to reconcile with the official versions of recent art history now emerging.
Contemporary American art history is spookily aligned with Reagan/Bush ideology. By excising artworks from the 1960s that mirror the social and political upheavals and countercultural activities of the period, or focusing on works primarily in the formalist tradition, an unspoken al- liance is forged with the conservatives: both agree that these unsavory issues are not appropriate
for art, and thus for society. According to this narrative, Andy Warhol is the prototypical 1960s artist, and his silkscreen paintings are the apotheosis of the American art of that era. Drenched in user-friendly rationalism, they are formalism in populist drag. I simplify, of course. But it is in these terms that the work has reached its position of critical ascendancy. Eliminated from discussion, or demeaned as minor dalliances, are whole areas of Warhol’s output that contradict his “high” sta- tus. I’m thinking especially of his films, which, by the very nature of their themes, “actors,” and du- ration so perfectly reveal an audience at odds with museum culture. For the most part his paintings, by contrast, stick to traditional bourgeois themes: court portraiture and the still life denoting wealth. I often ask myself why Warhol did not bring the crummy street-world of his films into his paintings. Why, for example, did he never produce a portrait of Charles Manson,6 who seems such an obvious and correct choice? What other figure so perfectly embodies the cultural conflict of the period? The answer is that there was no room in art for such a figure. To drag such base material into the hushed world of painting would run the risk of having Warhol’s whole enterprise cast in a dangerous, “low” light: Andy’s “factory” could become a doppelganger for Manson’s “family.”
Interestingly, Paul Thek and Andy Warhol made one collaborative work, Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box (1965), in which Warhol’s sculpture becomes the vitrine that holds Thek’s wax meat slab. At first it seems an unlikely pairing—the cool with the sexual, the hip with the foolish, the uninflected with the grotesque, the clean with the dirty. But then you realize that the connec- tion lies in a kind of symmetrical perversity, in the strange parasitic relationship both of them have to the hard-edge aesthetic prevalent at the time. Thek’s Plexiglas boxes reduce the minimalist aes- thetic to display cases, while Warhol’s boxes reduce it to commodities. In the collaborative piece, Warhol adopts the submissive role, becoming the surrogate defiled object, the stand-in for the de- rided primal form. In the current climate of art-world “outing,” one is tempted to ponder their “collaboration” further, along the lines of the fantasies some weave around the relationship be- tween Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.7 This object is the only child of their union, however. Thek’s work after the technological reliquaries goes in a direction completely incompatible with Warhol’s aesthetic.
Death of a Hippie (1967) is the signpost for this change as well as, in my estimation, Thek’s masterwork. Here, Thek tackles head-on the very material that Warhol shuns in his gallery work. The entombed hippie corpse (the “tripping corpse,” to borrow a phrase from Raymond Pettibon)8
Paul Thek and Andy Warhol, Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box (1965). From the series Technological Reliquaries. Beeswax, painted wood, and Plexiglas. 14 x 17 x 17 ins. Photo: Graydon Wood. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with Funds Contributed by the Daniel W. Dietrich Foundation.
is Manson, is the Altamont Hell’s Angel:9 the degraded end of hippie utopianism and the beginning of the notion of hippie as criminal burnout. Perhaps the direct result of his being shot by Valerie Solanis in 1968,10 Warhol is the saintly JFK of the 1960s art world and the Factory his Camelot. The shooting was both his artistic assassination and his rise to glory. It signals the end of his association with street culture and ushers him fully into the pantheon of serious artists. It saves him from the bitter fate of being a “period” artist—the fate that awaited Paul Thek. Thek’s complex allegory of the murder of the counterculture is meaningless in an art world that denies that hippies ever ex- isted. Death of a hippie? How can something die that was born dead?
Official art culture is much more effective in its control of history than Republican strate- gists, for it knows that the best way to treat contradictory material is not to rail against it, but sim- ply to pretend it didn’t happen. Punk’s reactionary anthems shouting “Kill the hippies!”11 carried within them the seeds of the current neo-hippie revival. Such a return was so inevitable that the punk slogans are revealed as ironic—simply adolescent Oedipal backlash rather than truly ideo- logical. If the punks had really hated hippies, they should have kept their mouths shut. Museum culture lets time do its work for it. Long repressed and forgotten material is reintroduced as clichés corresponding to present trends. Hippies are now ahistorical archetypes. Few know what led to their rise, or the particulars of their various styles and beliefs. Ideology has been drained from hippiedom, producing a stock character type—a cartoon of American otherness. Americans can only attach themselves to rebellion in this way—as a unitary sign stripped of conflict, its complex- ity neutered. If hippie aesthetics has found its way into the halls of cultural history, it is only in this way, in the form of works like the paintings of Philip Taaffe with their snide, winking allusions to 1960s op art and hallucinatory drug culture.
A good lesson can be learned by looking at how American critics have responded to the recent upsurge of interest in the French situationists. Major shows of situationist works have been mounted by the Institutes of Contemporary Art in London and Boston and elsewhere, and another show of works by supposedly situationist-inspired punk entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren was at the New Museum in New York.12 These have been accompanied by a spate of catalogues, books, and essays on the subject—the most popular and grandiose of which is Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces.13 This romantic homage to the Sex Pistols traces punk’s roots back through situationism to dada. But it is very careful never to stray too far from the path of sanctioned—entirely European—art history.
These are serious artists within a lineage of high art. Marcus shoves under the rug all rock history related to grassroots culture, and almost all reference to American counterculture. For me, the Sex Pistols make no sense unless they are seen in relation to this lost history. Marcus has constructed a story of rock for those outside of it, tailoring it to their art museum history. The result is cultural his- tory flavored with tasteful old world spices. You can almost hear the longing in these critics’ voices. “Why can’t we have a serious, intellectual underground culture?” they whine. But we do—it’s just that they wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. There’s nothing to be gained by it. It’s not important.
How does the relationship of the French situationists to their culture compare to the Yip- pies’ relationship to American culture? What’s the difference between Malcolm McLaren’s hip cap- italism and Frank Zappa’s “selling out” jokes?14 How does the Clash’s role as a “political” band compare to that of the MC5?15 You’ll never know. Because all the Americans I’ve just mentioned are categorized as hippies, not artists. They don’t count. Radicalism and art are a contradiction of terms to American museum culture (academic Puritan agitprop of the Hans Haacke variety notwith- standing). It will be a cold day in Hell when you see a major American museum mount a show of the cultural production of the Weather Underground or Black Panthers. The situationists are OK; they’re French.
Paul Thek’s Death of a Hippie is a great work of art. It is a shrine to anti-Americanism, to the antipatriarchal. Yet it speaks in an American language, a low and dirty language. It must, because it’s speaking to those who are frightened of the low and dirty, who are its enemies. They are the ones who have positioned you as the low and dirty. The dead hippie is a sign of America’s disgust with and hatred of cultural otherness. It is the image of its fear of death, the erotic, gender confusion, and vi- sual opulence—its fear of anti-institutional art, the kind of “art” you see captured in Larry Clark’s photos of crash pads: installations for incorrect living, churches of cultural decay, garbage pits of ex- istence.16 The dead hippie is a statue of creative resistance, murdered. The fingers, the artist’s gener- ative organs, have been chopped off and placed in a bag around the figure’s neck—souvenirs of the slaughter—like the kill tokens taken by soldiers in Vietnam who fashioned necklaces of human fin- gers, like the genitals hacked off and stuffed into the mouths of lynched blacks.
This corpse is pink. It is pretty decay, and prettiness is a weapon for Thek. He admits that one of the inspirations for his technological reliquaries was the work of Larry Bell, one of those crit- ically hated “decorative” minimalists.17 John McCracken did a series of simple planks in lipstick
shades that rested against the wall.18 It was sissy minimalism. Pink is the hippie color. It’s fairydust color, gender-bender color, anti-I-beam-sculpture color, the color of the New Man, the hermaphrodite color. In A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress, Thek exhibited sculptures damaged during shipping in a gallery where they were bathed in pink light. He repaired them in this light, and when they were fixed, moved them into a room lit with white light. They were reborn. They moved from the womb into the world.19
This contrary prettiness, which has been called his “decadent aestheticism,”20 continues to be the most disturbing element of Paul Thek’s work. The early works, the technological reliquaries, are the works that are now in vogue. Their faux coolness, their meanness, their reactionary attitude is what endears them to modern eyes, mine included. But his later works—the cosmic junk piles, the precious little paintings and sculptures—are a harder pill to swallow. They are truly embarrassing, calling to mind crafts more than art. Bunnies, Bambi, Bo Jangles, stomach-churning, sweet hippie and middle- American kitsch are combined in sometimes horribly melodramatic situations. Why is this material so hard to reconcile as art? Perhaps because it is our culture, and art is not culture—it is some ritual ac- tivity paralleling culture. American culture is best exemplified by Walt Disney (or his current reincarna- tion, Steven Spielberg). Disney’s is the official culture, the one that has a name, is in secret dalliance with the low forms that remain anonymous: the unwashed mass of nameless producers of porn, hor- ror, romance, and exploitation genres. He is the sweetness-and-light shielding us from the dark clouds. Disney is our God. He lies in state: frozen, ready someday to rise from the dead and walk hand in hand with Christ and Andy Warhol’s audio-animatron.21 Next to his frozen body, Paul Thek has placed an amazing wax effigy of himself: a stinking hippie in permanent fixed decay—a pink raspberry shitsicle in answer to Walt’s porcelain-white vanilla bar.
.    1  `Salvador Dalí, “The Stinking Ass,” trans. J. Bronowski, This Quarter 5, no. 1 (September 1932); reprinted in Lucy Lippard, ed., Surrealists on Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 97. Originally published in the first issue of Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution (July 1930). Kelley prefers this translation; but see also “The Rotting Donkey,” trans. Yvonne Shafir, in Salvador Dalí, Oui, the Paranoid-Critical Revolu- tion: Writings 1927–1933, ed. Robert Descharnes (Boston: Exact Change, 1998), pp. 115–19; and note on pp. 174–75.
.    2  Articles, reviews, or interviews about Thek’s work appeared, for example, in Art News in April 1966, May 1969, March 1977, and February 1983; in Art in America in May 1977, June 1985, March 1986, and June 1990; and in Artforum in May 1980 and October 1981 (this list is selective).
.    3  Thek’s work was absent from most major U.S. museums and public collections in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, however, several acquisitions had been made. In 1998, for example, a Judith Rothschild Foun- dation grant for the purchase of work by Thek (one of “20 projects involving underrecognized, recently de- ceased artists”) was awarded to the Museum of Modern Art in New York; two years before, the same foundation assisted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with the acquisition and display of the sculpture Untitled 1965, “the first work of the artist to be exhibited in a major public collection in the Los Angeles area” (website of the Judith Rothschild Foundation). The out-of-print monograph is Paul Thek: Processions, pub- lished by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, on the occasion of the Thek exhibition, October 30 to December 4, 1977.
.    4  Gregory Battcock, ed., Mimimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1968). Thek’s work is Untitled 1966 (illus. no. 443).
.    5  There were few cogent attempts in criticism or exhibitions to account for the various returns to the body in sculpture, installation, and video art at the end of the 1980s. An exception—significantly, seen only outside the U.S.—is Jeffrey Deitch’s survey show Post Human (FAE Musée d’Art Contemporain, Pully/Lausanne, 1992).
.    6  Along with members of his “family,” Charles Manson was convicted of the Tate and LaBianca murders in a trial that began in mid-June 1971 and lasted nine and a half months, the longest and most expensive mur- der trial in U.S. legal history.
.    7  For a discussion of the relationship between Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, see Jonathan Katz, “The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg,” in Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds., Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993), pp. 88–207. Katz delivered lectures on this subject on the West Coast in 1990 and at the College Art Association confer- ence in 1991.
.    8  First issued in 1981, Tripping Corpse is the title of a series of self-published zines with drawings about the de- graded end of the hippie era, drug culture, Charles Manson, etc., by Raymond Pettibon. For a partial com- pendium of Pettibon’s books and zines see Roberto Ohrt, ed., Raymond Pettibon: The Books, 1978–1998 (New York: DAP, 2000).
.    9  Kelley is referring to a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Raceway, California, in November 1969 during which one of the Hell’s Angels recruited to provide security knifed and killed black concertgoer Meredith Hunter. The event has often been interpreted as a kind of symbolic death of the 1960s.
.    10  Born in 1936, Valerie Solanis acted in several Andy Warhol films, authored the “SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto” (1968), and was the would-be assassin of Warhol in June of the same year, shooting him three times in the chest. After three years in jail, she spent the rest of her life in and out of mental hos- pitals, before she died in 1988.
.    11  “Kill the Hippies” was released by the Deadbeats on Dangerhouse Records in 1978; “Kill the hippies” is a phrase attributed to Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.
.    12  Recent exhibitions include On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Period of Time (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, and the Institutes of Contemporary Art in London and Boston, 1989–90); and Situacionistes: arte politica, urbanisme (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1996). On McLaren, see Paul Taylor, ed., Impresario: Malcolm McLaren and the British New Wave (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988).
.    13  Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).
.    14  Most of the tracks on We’re Only in It for the Money (as well as its cover satirizing the Beatles’ Sergeant Pep- per), released by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in February 1968, lambast hippiedom and the counterculture.
.    15  Managed by radical poet John Sinclair, the MC5 (Rob Tyner, vocals; Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitars; Michael Davis, bass; and Dennis Thompson, drums) functioned as the mouthpiece for the Detroit/Ann Arbor-based anarchist White Panther Party. Their first album, Kick Out the Jams, was released in 1969. The band’s live sets featured political rants patterned after those of the Black Panthers. The MC5 was one of the few bands to play during the disturbances at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The “political” dimension of the Clash (formed in London in 1976 with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones on guitars, Paul Simenon on bass, and Topper Headon on drums) is quite different. As their first albums, The Clash (1977) and London Calling (1980), reveal, “the Clash have been understood,” Greil Marcus suggests, “as ‘political’ for the right reasons: because more directly than other bands, they saw in punk proof that apparently trivial questions of music and style profoundly threatened those who ran their society.” Greil Marcus, “The Clash” (1978), in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977–92 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 29.
.    16  Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983) were self-published by Larry Clark in New York.
.    17  Thek noted quite specifically that “I was much influenced by Larry Bell”; cited in Richard Flood, “Paul Thek: Real Misunderstanding,” Artforum (October 1981), p. 49.
.    18  The titles of some of John McCracken’s plank pieces, such as The Case for Fakery in Beauty (1967) (“light lavender plank”) and Think Pink (1967) (“Plank”), referring to pink and associated colors, are longer and more metaphoric than others in the series (e.g. Black Plank [1968]), suggesting a special investment in these chromatic signs. In a recent conversation with Kelley, the artist noted that these and some related titles were
taken from women’s fashion magazines. See also Thomas Kellein, catalogue for McCracken (Kunsthalle,
Basel, September 24 to November 12, 1995).
.    19  An account of the damaged work and the pink light is found in Paul Thek: Processions, p. 10. The pink tones of Death of a Hippie were noted by several critics, including Adrian Henri: “The life-size figure, its pyramid tomb, and all its enigmatic trappings, are colored a uniform shade of pastel pink” (Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance [New York: Praeger, 1974], p. 56).
.    20  Henri, Total Art, p. 56.
.    21  The “urban legend” of Walt Disney’s body being kept in cryogenic storage is alluded to on a Disney website; see Warhol’s audio-animatron was designed as a stand-in for the artist for a theatrical work in which the robot was intended to expound Warhol’s philosophy. Arising from a proposal by Broadway producer Lewis Allen, the figure was constructed but never completed due to tech- nical problems. The genesis of the project is outlined in Pat Hackett, ed., The Andy Warhol Diaries (New York: Warner Books, 1989), pp. 254, 257, 339–40, 347–48, 517–18. The unfinished audio-animatron is pictured under the caption “Andy’s No-Man Show” in Life (December 1984), p. 176.