I’m reading a book right now for my Historicity course called Re-Thinking History by Richard Jenkins (1991). Jenkins lays out the basic concept of reading history critically - not taking the historian’s view as fact, but rather as one of many (inherently biased) accounts. This criticality, he argues, has long been a given in other disciplines: philosophy, sociology, and the like - but had not yet made its way into mainstream notions of history. It was apparently groundbreaking at the time, and I wonder if perhaps the reason it seems so basic to me is that even as far back as middle school, I remember my social studies teacher telling us that primary and secondary source materials helped us to reconstruct the past, but that we never had access to one essential truth.
This is also the method I was taught in my museum education days, when, instead of reciting a wall plaque to the visitors about the artworks, I would engage them in seeing, thinking, and connecting. “What do you see here?” “What does this remind you of?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” What matters is facilitating people’s connection to the artwork, making them feel knowledgable not by laying out a clearly defined essentialist history, but by opening access from the viewer’s wealth of experiences to the image.
Paul Thek, Untitled (Meat Piece with Flies), 1965, from the series Technological Reliquaries. Image courtesy the NYT.
Holland Cotter’s review in this morning’s NYT of Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective at the Whitney Museum got me thinking - what artists does history miss? In today’s ever-expanding international art schedule, there are so many galleries, museum shows, and studios that, if unvisited or undocumented, go unnoticed. If you blink, you miss out. Thek studied painting at Cooper in the late 1950s, and ran in circles with Susan Sontag, Eva Hesse, and Peter Hujar. He was alert to the work of Johns, Kaprow, Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Bueys, as well as the Arte Povera movement. He spoke the language of the great minimalists and neo-avant gardes. In the late 1960s, Thek travelled to Europe, where he was warmly received, and dabbled in creating large scale collaborative ephemeral environments. When he came back to New York, the 1960s were over and no one apparently remembered him. (I find this hard to believe, but the “facts” remain.)
He’s also devastatingly gorgeous:
Paul Thek in the Palermo Catacombs, 1963. Image courtesy the NYT.
Thek was 54 when he died of AIDS in 1988, but according to Cotter, he “had already slipped through the cracks of art history. Or rather he had fallen into one of the deep trenches that divide history into artificial islands with names like Pop and Minimalism.” Cotter seems all too aware of Jenkins’ concept of history-construction. In a look through the exhibition site, the images make it clear that this artist was of quality, and worth a re-writing. “And what of Thek today?” Cotter asks:
"There is little room for him in the existing history books, with their cut-and-dried geographies. Nor is his art a natural fit in conventional museums like the Whitney. The meat pieces are still frontal attacks on formalism, the art world’s closely guarded safety zone. The installation leftovers are moldy stains on the modernist white box: organic to its inorganic, dirty to its clean; emotion to its reason.
So if Thek is taken seriously, and his widespread influence demonstrates that he is, traditional history has to be resurveyed and rewritten. It will no longer be a tale of fortress islands but of ships and swimmers moving among them. It will be a history of gigantic obsolescence, and precious semi-permanent slightness, of active anger and hard-earned relief. (“Afflict the comfortable; comfort the afflicted,” is how Thek put it in a late painting.) And, of course, in that history he will take his rightful place.”
Installation shot: Paul Thek at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Image courtesy the NYT.
But will he? It depends entirely on art historians and the textbooks future students and scholars will read. Although the mounting of the show itself seems like a miracle, Cotter, as a critic, must make some comment on the exhibition. He describes the show as “ragged, moving and much-anticipated” and, later, “less than we hoped for, perhaps, but more than anticipated.” This is an interesting distinction - hope and anticipation. If the base of knowledge is zero — if we know nothing about the artist to begin with — then isn’t something better than nothing?
Not in the slightest. It is here that the curators make a huge difference in the perception of the work: if the installation had been ugly or somehow unpleasing to critics and connoisseurs, Thek may have been slandered, or, even worse, forgotten. His name, and all the work attached to it, would have slid further into anonymity. I’m glad the “organizers” (why is the Whitney not using the word “curators”?) Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky, made this exhibition happen, and I will definitely check it out in December.
If nothing else, you can always count on Cotter for some beautiful, thought-provoking prose. I like his metaphor of artistic movements as coarsely-delineated “geographies” and artists and their networks as “islands” and “archipelagos.” I am making a mental note to return to these phrases again soon.