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First Major Exhibition in the United States to Explore the Work of Paul Thek at the Hammer Museum
Untitled (Diver), 1969-70. Synthetic polymer and gesso on newspaper. 22 x 33 3/16 in. (56.5 x 84.3 cm). Collection of Gail and Tony Ganz. The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photograph by Douglas M. Parker Studio.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- This summer the Hammer Museum presents a retrospective of work by legendary American artist Paul Thek (1933-1988). On view May 22 through August 28, 2011, Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective, is the first major exhibition in the United States to explore the work of this sculptor,painter, and creator of radical installations, and the first major exhibition of this artist’s work to be presented on the west coast. Many of the approximately 130 objects, which include paintings, drawings, and sculpture, have not been seen in the U.S. in the decades since they were made; while others have never been seen here at all. Several of Thek’s “meat pieces” will be shown, along with rare works such as Untitled (Dwarf Parade Table), never before seen in this country. The exhibition also includes images documenting the artist at work in his studio by photographer Peter Hujar as well as Thek’s journals, filled with deeply personal thoughts and drawings.

“Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective is the kind of exhibition we love at the Hammer. Thek has achieved an almost cult-like status among artists—both during his lifetime as well as with a younger generation of artists. Despite that, his work is little known to the broader public and so it is our great pleasure to bring it forward to a greater audience,” remarks Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin.

Paul Thek first gained recognition for his sculpture in New York during the 1960s. The first works he exhibited, called “meat pieces,” or Technological Reliquaries, were made of beeswax and resembled glistening pieces of raw flesh housed in geometric Plexiglas boxes. In a 1969 interview with critic Emmy Huf in the Dutch paper De Volkskrant he said: “In New York at that time there was such an enormous tendency toward the minimal, the non-emotional, the anti-emotional even, that I wanted to say something again about emotion, about the ugly side of things. I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art.”

His most famous work, The Tomb, opened in 1967 at the Stable Gallery in New York. The Tomb included a life-size effigy of the artist, which came to be known as the “Hippie,” a mannequin with a face and hands that had been cast in wax from Thek’s body. The work vanished in the early 1980s, but some elements will be on view at the Hammer. Between 1969 and 1973 Thek created major installation works in Europe, many of which drew on religious processions, the theater as tableau, and the common experiences of everyday life as subjects. Even with these monumental installations, Thek continued using fragile materials, including wax, latex, sand, and tissues, which has resulted in most of this installation work being lost. Respecting Thek’s aesthetic and his acceptance of the ephemeral nature of his work, the curators have not attempted to fully reconstruct environments or exhibitions from Thek’s lifetime, rather they have included important remaining elements from these installations alongside vintage photographs and a film which illustrates the full installation is its original context.

As Douglas Fogle notes, “The presentation of this unique retrospective in Los Angeles is really unprecedented. Even though Thek was based in New York and Europe, many artists living and working here in Los Angeles hold his work in the highest esteem. From Paul McCarthy to younger artists such as Richard Hawkins and Friedrich Kunath, Thek’s influence has been felt in a profoundly visceral way. No doubt the exhibition will provide some historical context for the kinds of sculpture, painting, and installation that have been generated by artists in Los Angeles for the past three decades.”

In addition to Thek’s sculptural and installation work, the exhibition presents a selection of his paintings and drawings, including paintings that Thek made in 1969-1970, on the island of Ponza, possibly inspired by the cover slab from the Tomb of the Diver, an ancient fresco unearthed in Paestum in 1968. Along with these celestial blue images of swimmers and divers that inspired the title of the exhibition, Thek’s earliest newspaper paintings populated with pipe-smoking dwarves, a recurring motif, will also be shown.

In 1976, Thek returned to New York from Europe to an art world in which he was largely unknown. In the 1980s, he began showing mostly small drawings and paintings in New York and Paris and in 1985 he was chosen to represent the U.S. at the Bienal de So Paulo. In 1987 he learned that he had AIDS, and by 1988, he died at the age of 54, from complications from AIDS.

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