Paul Thek was an American-born conceptual artist who worked in many different mediums as a sculptor, painter and installation artist from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1980’s ending with his premature death in 1988. A common theme running through his work is the use of perishable materials, and as a result, a substantial amount of his work no longer exists. What’s curious about this is that his pieces referencing meat and its lack of permanence are his most enduring and finely crafted pieces. Thek’s career had many ups and downs, successes and failures, but his current perceived status as art renegade and a 2010 retrospective at the Whitney Museum speak to his influence and enduring popularity.
During the summer of 1963, Paul Thek and the photographer Peter Hujar visited the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo Italy. In the catacombs are human remains displayed in glass boxes, and it was this visual experience that would inform Thek’s work for the next few years. His work features slabs of meat, sections of an arm, bound foot-like artifacts, all glistening meaty fat and oozing marrow. Some with tubing penetrating the surface of the meat and others with hair that appears to be growing on the surface, the works are both alive and dead at the same time. As real as they appear to be, they are actually skillfully rendered sculptures made of plaster, wax, and hair. Thek was trying to elicit an emotional response through these works, and in that aspect they are truly successful. There is a real preciousness and attention to detail that is oddly detached from the other art being produced at the time, which was primarily geometric and minimalist.