Philippe Vergne discusses Paul Thek’s "Hippopotamus" from Technological Reliquaries (1965)
Philippe Vergne, September 1999
There are two elements in this work. You have very clean boxes, which have this kind of industrial look and inside the box, you have something which is totally disgusting, a piece of rhinoceros meat, raw meat. It's bloody. You have this kind of dynamic thing between the two elements: something clean with no emotion and something very violent. When Paul Thek started to do this work, he was positioning himself into a situation which was as a situation of the New York scene in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the major movements in this period was minimal art. Minimal art was this idea of the end of the artist. When we say, "minimal art", you're thinking Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol Le Witt that you can see also in the installation. The idea was that the project of the artist is almost what is the most important thing. The hand made ... totally disappeared. The object was done almost in an industrial way. It was cold. The objects were presented for their abstract quality, for their concrete quality. Frank Stella when he defined his work I think was saying is to be seen is what you see and there is nothing else. When Paul Thek started to work, he, in a way, positioned himself against minimalism. He, through his work, was critiquing the way minimalism was too pure, the purity of minimalism, in a period of time where history was dealing with something like the Vietnam War. For him, it was very difficult that an artist stay neutral, stay pure and didn't position himself regarding this historical fact; so, he decided to pervert the minimalist model, which is very much about suffering, about the way the body is wounded. So, it was addressing a critique both of the art movement of the moment and a critique of the historical facts. I also love him because when I look at the work, I cannot not think about writing by Ballard or movies by Cronenberg. I think there is very early on something which is totally about contemporary culture. When you move to the next gallery you're going to see some other pieces which can address this issue. I think Paul Thek, very early on, was doing work that could have been done at the end of the 1990s. His work was discovered something like ten years ago by other artists who looked at his work and said, "Oh, my god! this guy is more interesting than what we thought," or "We did not know the work." Even if the artist is passed away, his work is still alive because he still informs us about art practice.
Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center