Paul Thek’s Untitled (Diver)

I’ve been blue and am in the mood for another shade of the color that denotes moody introspection. Tone it down and take it back, Geoff, the present is here, your past is all in your head, and this too shall pass. Paul Thek’s work was at the Hammer last year (or was it years ago or yesterday? This featureless, immediate space is my current wistful domain.) and speaking of the fact of this painting at a recent studio visit gives me reason to revisit Paul Thek’s particular blue, Diver.

This small shade will fade away in the noonday sun of current work. Diver will return to its time and place. The past is persistent, insubstantial, present and sometimes is its own cure.

Cheers. October 3, 2012

Paul Thek, Andy Warhol Screen Test, 2004. Whitney Museum installation.

Paul Thek, Andy Warhol Screen Test, 2004. Whitney Museum installation.

Paul Thek: Diver closes on August 28.

Beginning around 2007 I heard Paul Thek mentioned as a reference and inspiration by artists. Up to that time I hadn’t heard of Thek and from the conversations he sounded to be always young, blonde, winsome and beautiful. Oh, and somehow tragic and very romantic. I still never knowingly saw his work, it just wasn’t around.

In 2009 a book was published, Paul Thek: Artist’s Artist, and everyone bought it. Then, or concurrently, news of this current exhibition came to my attention and I began seeing images of Thek’s painting Diver. Make that Diver, Paul Thek’s iconic painting, which stands above everything else the artist produced. His many sculptures are fantastic and memorable but this image is simple enough to ‘stand’ for Thek in the public’s mind, or maybe just in my mind.

The painting is really a genius of simple blues with fleshy pinks, emphasized and complicated by the sepia-toned aged newsprint border. The diver’s pinkish body makes a lovely arc across the page as one’s eye travels along it, from his ankles which appear out of the top border and along to his hands where they disappear clean into the water. There is a darker pink swelling at his midpoint where his balls have fallen earthward and from this lump the line of his thickened penis hangs – no, points – straight down, perpendicular to the earth and parallel to the viewer, rather than curved like his body. This diver is haloed with the same paint that makes the water, a thick line is painted around his body – his aura swells a bit at the top where his feet aren’t and it narrows at the water, where his hands touch then enter.

The title, too is memorable. Diver. In 1962 Jasper Johns used this title for a now famous drawing. Diver stands alone as a word. It brings to my mind images of a graceful and powerful solitary figure. A person diving, of course, from a cliff or from a pole. Into a suburban pool. Anyplace at water’s edge where one can find or make oneself alone, because one must be alone to dive, it’s like dying that way.

The two artworks that I’ve seen, Johns’ and Thek’s, bring to my mind a possible new image for the crucifixion. I also think of the time at the end of the Dark Ages when the Renaissance was just rearing it’s lovely head, when, in my imagination, solitary knights traveled the abandoned and mysterious territories between cities. I imagine these men as having some power that escapes all other beings in the time: they understand themselves as individuals. Bravely, they act upon this understanding. This is their magic and their power – other people, most of Western culture, had to wait until the Enlightenment to conceive (and perhaps achieve) the radically simple notion of the individual, and of self determination.

Paul Thek, Untitled (Diver), 1969-1970, Synthetic polymer and gesso on newspaper. Overall: 22 1/4 x 33 3/16in. (56.5 x 84.3 cm). Collection of Gail and Tony Ganz.

Paul Thek, Untitled (Diver), 1969-1970, Synthetic polymer and gesso on newspaper. Overall: 22 1/4 x 33 3/16in. (56.5 x 84.3 cm). Collection of Gail and Tony Ganz.

It’s a huge treat to actually see the objects that have made Paul Thek so… under the radar famous. He was an amazing maker, and achieved real technical perfection in his “meat’ pieces and the Dead Hippies. This perfection translated to something… other as he aged. And this other, and the tension it brings, is where questions can enter the work in a clear way. Paul Thek remains enigmatic but at least now, with pictures and experiences of looking in my mind, I have a sense of why I need to be interested.

Geoff Tuck

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