Gemeentemuseum Den Haag acquires ‘contemporary reliquary’ by Paul Thek
The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag has purchased one of the series of Technological Reliquaries created by American artist Paul Thek (1933-1988). The sculpture is reminiscent of the kind of medieval shrine in which relics of a saint or martyr are presented in an ornamental casket. Thek’s version consists of a bloody lump of flesh, made of wax and pigment, presented inside a metal structure, itself enclosed within a perspex box. Thek is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 1960s and ’70s. His work is a major source of inspiration to artists of today, such as Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. The new acquisition has been purchased with the assistance of three Dutch art funds: the Rembrandt Society’s dedicated Modern and Contemporary Art Fund, the Mondrian Fund and the VSB Fund. It is currently on show at the Gemeentemuseum as part of the museum’s ‘Complex Installations’ exhibition, after which it will be given a place of honour in the museum’s permanent ‘Discover the Modern’ display.
Paul Thek’s renowned Meat Pieces (later retitled Technological Reliquaries) had their first showing in 1964 at New York’s Pace Gallery. The series featured pieces of skin, adipose tissue and flesh sculpted in materials like wax, paint, metal and plastic. They were so realistic that it looked as if the artist had brought gobbets of raw meat straight from the abattoir. The public found the spectacle sickening. In an interview given in 1966, Thek talks about his disappointment at their reaction and wonders aloud whether people felt equally sick when they looked at a painting by Francis Bacon or at Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. “Everything is beautiful and everything is ugly simultaneously.” Although the legendary New York exhibition ensured Thek’s fame in the United States, he decided a few years later to move to Europe, where he made the temporary installations that were to make him a major player in the international art world.
Thek believes that our enormous affluence and the stimuli with which the mass media bombard us have had the effect of dulling the human senses. When he took a fragment of the human body as his subject and placed it in a clearly Catholic context in Untitled (1965-1966), he was also reacting against the superficiality of the dominant art movements of the 1960s: Minimal Art and Pop Art. The ‘sarcophagus’ that encloses the perspex box seems to be a reference to a Donald Judd sculpture and adds – quite literally – an extra ‘layer’ of complexity to the work. By presenting the artwork as a contemporary reliquary, Thek seeks to imbue art with a new spirituality.
Although works on paper by Paul Thek occasionally come on the market, his iconic works are very rarely for sale. A major reason for this is the frequent use of perishable materials in his installations. Gemeentemuseum Director Benno Tempel calls the purchase a unique opportunity. “Over the last few years we have expanded the international collection by acquiring major works by Berlinde de Bruyckere, Louise Bourgeois and Lee Bontecou. Apart from this new work from the Technological Reliquaries series, the museum also possesses a triptych by Thek and a work on paper dating from 1971. Although each of these artists uses distinctively different techniques, the transitory nature of human life is central to all their oeuvres. Despite Thek’s huge influence on contemporary artists, his work is under-represented in Dutch museums. The new work is an important acquisition both for the museum and for the nation”.
Paul Thek had a close relationship with the Netherlands. He lived here from time to time and had an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1969. Spirituality, sexuality and scepticism about technological progress play a major role in his multidisciplinary oeuvre, which employs an intensely personal visual idiom.
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