Neal Baer Collection

Paul Thek

Two men throwing words at each other


Oil on canvas in artist's frame with lighting

10 5/8 x 13 5/8 x 5 ½ in (27 x 34 x 14 cm)

Paul Thek (1933-1988) was born in New York. Thek developed a practice across media, realizing particularly complex installations in Europe, where he lived for much of the 1960s and 70s before returning to New York. Thek’s romantic and artistic collaboration with Peter Hujar in the early 60s in Italy was especially significant. Two men throwing words at each other is one of Thek’s first small-scale picture light paintings originally exhibited with 17 other picture light paintings at Brooks Jackson Gallery, New York, as part of an installation called “A Lot of Little Paintings” in 1980.

Thek turned down the gallery lights, spotlit an extravagant orchid plant ringed by delicate gilt chairs, attached goose-necked museum lamps to the paintings, and stuck punch-tape labels on sham gold frames. The effect was as glamorously artificial as Marlene Dietrich’s platinum Afro in Blonde Venus, and almost as outrageous. But it was also a delicately sensual reminder that paintings do not have to be lit as if they are about to be combed for microbes; that they unfold by degrees rather than in the white light of an instant. As is usual with Thek, the message was a massage—at once invulnerably assured and naturally humble.

The Artist elaborates on his exhibition strategy and the limitations of self-evaluation:

I wanted the room to look good for people. I was tired of going into galleries and feeling like I was in a lineup. They’re all so brightly lit and there’s no place to sit down, and the gallery people are all peering through their windows—what a hostile environment. So it seemed the first thing to do was to humanize the environment; then you can look at a work of art. And, of course, you do that by turning down the lights, giving people some chairs to sit on, and not having the art restricted in any way…The paintings [in the “Little Paintings” show] were about theology, psychology, philosophy, art, and, hopefully in all of them, humor.

Richard Flood, “Paul Thek: Real Misunderstanding,” Artforum, October 1981

Thek described his picture light paintings as “kitschy, not well painted, rough, and not harmonic,” and as Elizabeth Sussman notes, “compared with the enormous size and high seriousness of other 80s paintings, Thek’s work was intimate, playful and approachable.” In later installations of his picture light paintings, Thek would sometimes position a schoolchair opposite each painting.

The paintings’ low position injects idealized and impersonal museum habits with a playful humanity: Adults are forced to bend, sit, or even lie down to see the works, reminding us of the bodies hosting our eyes.

Katy Siegel, “Paul Thek, The Arts Club of Chicago,” Artforum, March 1999

Thek’s interest in the corporal runs throughout his practice, most prominently with his Technological Reliquaries series of the 1960s, wax casts of pieces of meat and his own body parts encased in neon yellow Plexiglas vitrines.

Similar to the Technological Reliquaries’ interrogation of Minimalism’s purity, the affected naiveté of the picture light paintings speaks to Thek’s attitude against a certain kind of overwrought intellectualizing associated with Conceptual art practices and the “internationalist style” of contemporary art taking shape in his time. As Richard Flood describes, “Paul’s contribution was all about modesty and the power of one; it is important because it was responsive to the world and contra to the cynicism of the worldly.”

Thek died of AIDS in 1988.

Iolas Gallery – Brooks Jackson Inc., New York

Galerie Samy Kinge, Paris

Private Collection, Paris

Christie’s Sale 15945, Art contemporain vente du jour, June 5, 2019, Lot 104

Venice, Biennale di Venezia, May – September 1980

Karlsruhe, ZKM Center for Art and Media (December – March); Hamburg, Sammlung Falckenberg (May – September); Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (February – April), Paul Thek: artist’s artist, 2007-2009

See also
Richard Flood, “Reviews: Paul Thek, Brooks Jackson Gallery Iolas,” Artforum, May 1980

Paul Thek: Diver (1980s Paintings) Video, the Whitney Museum of American Art

“Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective,” the Whitney Museum of American Art, 21 October 2010 – 9 January 2011

“Paul Thek,” Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 6 February – 16 April 2009

Paul Thek at Mai 36 Galerie

Paul Thek in the collection of the MoMA

Paul Thek, Space Age Pattern Painting, 1980 in collection of the The Walker Art Center

Paul Thek in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art

Richard Flood, “Paul Thek: Real Misunderstanding,” Artforum, October 1981