“I was a designer at the Coconut Grove for seven years in Florida,” Peter Harvey says, recalling the years in the 1950s when he lived with Paul Thek. “Paul painted. He had a little job at the Doubleday bookstore at night, so he could paint during the day. But I must confess, he spent a lot of time at the beach.”
Little known in America during his lifetime, Thek painted and made sculptures and site-specific installations using ephemeral materials:newspapers, beeswax, junk, vegetation, great sweeps of sand. His friend and fellow artist, Ann Wilson, who is also here today, remembers getting a letter from Paul asking her to bring him a taxidermied albatross for a piece he was making.
It was Ann who brought Peter down today, so they could share their memories of Paul. She and Paul both had work in The Other Tradition, Gene Swenson’s 1966 ICA show that explored Surrealism as a road to Pop. A decade later, Thek’s only solo museum show in the US when he was alive, PaulThek/Processions (1977), was organized at ICA by Suzanne Delehanty.
Also an artist, Peter Harvey worked as a scenic and costume designer in the theater for years. “Ann is convinced,” he says, “that when I was doing scenery, and Paul was helping me, that gave him the idea that he could make something out of bits and pieces, and it would take on another life.”
He tells us that Paul never knew how he was going to make a living. For a while he did fashion drawing—“he could draw like an angel”—but he didn’t like it. He drew all the time, though: people, fish, landscapes. Ann passes one of his notebooks around the table, along with photographs: a newspaper confessional he made; a picture of him watering his tenement roof garden;another of a table full of things he brought back from Egypt. “He wanted to see a real tomb,” Peter recalls.
Ann has saved bunches of Paul’s letters as well. “Let’s see if the sassiness comes through,” she says, then reads to us: “April 21, 1971, Paris. Last night I dreamed of Fire Island…” There’s a telegram he sent from Amsterdam after hearing about Stonewall: “If they don’t like it, blame it on the blue lady of the clouds.” In another letter, mailed from the tiny Italian fisherman’s island of Ponza, Paul describes making “a party tree” with his landlady’s young son,decorating it with a necklace of bottle caps and scotch tape, garlands of hand-colored toilet paper, and little cakes. “I’m doing paintings of blue puddles,” he wrote. “Paul the puddle painter…perhaps the puddle paintings belong on the floor.” Thek lived in Europe for a long time—Amsterdam, Rome,Paris—where his work was better supported than here in the US, and where it was cheaper to live.
Ann has brought some of her own notebooks too. She reads to us about a visit to Rome in 1969: “Paul met me at the airport. Saw dawn come up over the sea, the old ladies putting down their baskets for bread…” Together they admired the Pantheon, consumed lemon juice and doughnuts, drove around high at night blasting Bob Dylan. “I don’t think Paul could have done the work he did without pot,” she says. They had a big old Italian rowboat too, and the landlady would make them picnics of cheese and grapes and wine to take out in it. “Paul spent every day on the water,” Ann says. “Those colors of blue went straight into his work. And he played the mouth harp everywhere, when he didn’t have a guitar. We slept one night in a cave…”
Paul thought of himself as the Pied Piper, but he was also very Catholic. Ann believes that the processions he staged as part of his work(including the one here at ICA) were inspired by European Lent processions.“Toward the end of his life he wanted to be a brother,” she says, “but they wouldn’t take him. I told him to get a haircut and put on a communion suit.” A little later she says, “Europe knows Catholic.”
When Europe got too expensive, though, Paul returned to New York. This was in 1976. He was forty-three years old.
“He worked bagging groceries to support himself when he came back,” Ann says. “He lived in a tenement on East Fourth Street with a bathtub in the kitchen, and that was his studio….His contrariness got worse and worse as he got older. Some of it was frustration. At not being recognized. Not having money.”
“There’s that issue of Paul and the sense of exile.” This is Dan Dietrich, a long-time member of ICA’s Board of Overseers, who helped make this afternoon happen, and who knew Paul, too. “The sense of having gone away too long, not being known when he came back.”
Paul Thek died in 1988. In 2010, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized the major survey, Paul Thek: Diver. On the cover of the catalogue is a painting Thek made, on newspaper. It shows a man, naked and graceful, plummeting into a wash of blue.
Works by Paul Thek and Ann Wilson are on view now as part of ICA@50, the constantly changing exhibition marking the museum’s 50th birthday.