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A Narrative Biography

1950 - 68 | 1968 - 72 | 1973 - 77 | 1978 - 83 | 1984 - 88

1973 Thek and the Artist's Co-op are invited by Jean-Christophe Ammann, a member of Szeemann's team for documenta 5, to create an environment at the Kunstmuseum Luzern, Lucerne. Thek announces to Ammann: 'I will design a whole new show...hopefully  we will NOT be finished by the opening, Easter, but we will open anyway and fmish it as it goes, as long as it takes. Work theatre.' Then, later: 'I assume you have a local or national history museum, [with] specimens of stuffed animals, birds, etc....We will need cooperation also with your l'ocal Botanic Garden or Parks Department. Please always do your best to borrow or steal the things we want, frequently what is needed is already PUBLIC PROPERTY 'in another institution....We will need...the FREEDOM TO WORK IN THE MUSEUM WHEN WE CHOOSE, AT NIGHT FOR EXAMPLE.'
In February, he writes: 'Here in NY the Viet Peace has come, they say, and the church bells rang all over the city, but no one seemed to notice, all being afraid to believe in it, or anything else. This empire is crumbling fast even while the skyscrapers keep going up and the American experience makes me a bit sick, like blood in my mouth, and we seem alrnost caught in our technology, or the garbage from it.'
In March, the Artist's Co-op arrives in Lucerne: actress Cindy Lubar, artist Ildiko Viczian, and Michèle Collison, Franz Deckwitz, Lee Fitzgerald, Edwin Klein, Lily Nova, Charles Shuts, and Ann Wilson. While installing the environment, entitled Ark, Pyramid - Easter, they make a series of newspaper paintings, which are shown at Galerie Stahli-Langenbacher und Wankemaller in Lucerne. Instead of a conventional catalogue, the Artist's Co-op publishes a special book of texts and drawings to accompany the Ark, Pyramid - Easter exhibition. Thek performs in Robert Wilson's Overture for Ka Mountain and GUARDenia Terrace and The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin in Copenhagen.
Thek returns to Ponza and Rome. In Rome he starts to work on an elaborate series of small bronzes called The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, after the fairytale The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The series consists of small objects and figures, such as a flute, mice eating through a book, a burning book, a campfire and a wishbone. Thek continues to work on the series over the following years.
Thek frequently visits New York. Catholicism becomes a more explicit aspect of his work and daily life. He writes to Franz Deckwitz: '...I am trying to work, yes it is much harder now - as I think our EGOS are dead, which is good, + now we must discover WHY we are really painting, really WHY ... We are men now, painters are priests, and WE TRY to KNOW + TO DO THE WILL OF GOD. IT IS A GLORIOUS JOB + WE ARE HONORED AND WE TRY ALWAYS HARDER + ALWAYS WE KNOW IT IS NEVER ENOUGH WHAT WE DO. There seems always LESS TIME + more + more to DO and SAY.'
Karl Stuecklen introduces Thek to a Benedictine monastery in Weston, Vermont. He will often retreat here, meditating and praying. From the monastery he writes to Deckwitz: 'Here it is good for me and I spend some time praying. I think now how strange that we have spent all our lives, to now, trying to do OUR WILLS, working for us, and not doing GOD'S will. I wonder how it must feel to DO God's will? It must be a great excitement and joy. The daily praying is so necessary, how is it so FEW bother to do it?'
In December Thek and Deckwitz create the environment Ark, Pyramid - Christmas, also known as Die Krippe, at the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg. In the museum Thek directs a Christmas play with orphans from Duisburg. The children carry ritual objects, made by Thek, in a procession. There is a gingerbread pyramid filled with gifts, modelled to scale by a pastry chef after the pyramids of the previous installations. He writes to Peter Harvey: 'I am well etc., very, somehow they gave me the whole museum, fabulous cooperation, and 96 Bach singing children, so I am doing THE COMET, A Mid Winter's Nights Dream (with them all in underwear and pyjamas) I NEVER HAD SUCH AGOOD TIME IN MY LIFE.'

1974 Thek returns to New York and leaves again for Ponza, where he writes in his notebook: 'Wanting to begin ptg [painting] — some PINK ones. Birthday cakes, flying dinosaurs....I sing some guitar songs. Bo Jangles.... A lovely day, many things learned from Brother Lawrence ....Some songs from The Hymn Book, how I'd like another singer + tambourine! I dream of subways + singing, Paris perhaps, do some more work on mice — beginning in The Pied Pipers Fire — copy some Brother Lawrence — bed, read Pascal.' But Thek finds no solace on Ponza either: 'Lord...help me to be less "holy" and a better painter.. Why bother to do more rough paintings, already enough of those. People like them, I should judge less, exactness, less. DOING IS SUCCEEDING.' And later: 'So I continued to paint, painting today on newspaper + seeing how the quick aliveness, boldness of the brush is good, and also noticing, at the end of the day, when I saw how little positive result there was, that I must BLOCK it more intensely, that I must see DESIGN and FORM + not photographic mimicry. So, I must remember: PRACTICE, PATIENCE, OBSERVATION, FORM, MASSES, SIMPLICITY, OMIT, OMIT, OMIT, TAKE CHARGE MORE, DON'T JUST IMITATE.'

1975-76 Thek spends the winter in Rome, where he continues to work on The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper. He starts working on the first Uncle Tom's Cabin with Tower of Babel in bronze. He writes in his notebook: 'My head begins to open, open. Praise the Lord. I see the completion of the Pied Piper's blanket. I will go to the foundry tomorrow. All day I try to keep with God. It is better. I keep on center, neutral. Praise the Lord....My energy is back. Praise the Lord.


No hashish. I see the importance of withdrawing from sex in order to make the progress I wish. Too easily distracted here. More control needed, or no fun at all.... I see how important it is for me to AVOID HASHISH. It brings out melancholy and auto destruct.' Thek travels to Paris with some bronzes for an exhibition at Galerie Alexandre Iolas. The show is postponed. In Paris, he experiments with etching, depicting campfires, rising hearts, shooting stars, the Tower of Babel, and the trials and successes of Bo Jangles. In March, he makes a trip to the French countryside with Susan Sontag. He writes in his notebook: 'To bed — I try to interest myself in the Neitsche [sic] "Joyful Wisdom" I borrowed from Susan, but it seems silly + windy as usual — to sleep.' But later, he writes: 'I sleep late, read Neitzsche [sic], now I love it, I see it.' At the end of March, Thek returns to New York and Oakleyville. He receives an artist's grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a monthly stipend from Galerie Alexandre Iolas. He designs sets for Robert Wilson, based on the Paris etchings. At the end of July he writes to Franz Deckwitz: '...NYC seems more than ever totally OVER. A city that feels totally dead now, and as if it doesn't even know enough to lie down. The culture here, the late stages of pop vulgarity, is becoming really dangerous, physically, morally, etc. And I see that I can't ever really live here again, but, of course, I still feel uncomfortable as an eternal foreigner in Europe, I guess just keep moving around awhile longer, hoping to see or start a decent revolution that isn't just a lot of silly boys being "free," if you could see NY and the US now you would see how totally impossible it is for a revolution to be anything other than hard work, tight rules and lots of dedication... LESS individual freedom of a certain type. It has been interesting to have had such a good look at the fall of the world, we certainly did see it coming, didn't we?...I will soon be leaving New York,...to go to Paris, and then to Rome, Ponza.'
Back in Rome, Thek works on The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper.
In May 1976, Thek receives a letter from Jean-Christophe Ammann, saying: 'I have an urgent problem. We've still stored Ark, Pyramid - Easter and we can't do it any longer. At first, I have to ask you to confirm me in a letter, saying that we can drop all the wooden material, which we organized in Lucerne, the walls of the pyramid and the boat as well.' Thek gives permission, with the exception of Fishman, the corpse from The Tomb and Dwarf Parade Table, commenting: 'I sometimes feel museum people are even more confusing than the artists, but, frankly, I'm glad not to have to worry about it all anymore. I add, though, how sorry I am that the MUSEUMS find it impossible to find a way for me to continue with this kind of show. Didn't you have a good response from the public? We had a marvelous public response everywhere... I cannot understand why it is impossible for the museums to find a way for shows like this to continue. I feel it is important, IMPORTANT, socially, culturally; there seem to be so little group shows on the scene. Group work is always so much richer. It seems silly to have to throw away efforts like ARK, PYRAMID, EASTER... just because the museum system can't find a way to accept it. There must be a way....Can't you educate your museum friends, and most especially those people who support the museums, of the IMPORTANCE of these shows? For them AND for us! Can't you educate them so that they will become willing to spend some few thousand of $ for a show that does NOT remain, that is NOT purchaseable, that CANNOT be resold? That is the POINT of shows like ARK, PYRAMID, EASTER. And now it all has to stop, because no one bothered to find a way to support it. What a pity. And we're back where we started, looking at OBJETS D'ART, and worrying about pedestals, and frames....I am most ready and most willing to do more environmental shows, happily. I have now so many ideas, and no opportunities....Surely it is sad that it isn't still continuing SOMEWHERE. To my present knowledge there is no one doing that kind of NATURAL theatre, what a shame, and here I am... working in BRONZE! I'm really a bit embarassed by it, but what can I do?'
In June, the foundry in Rome goes bankrupt and closes down. Thek has to sell some bronzes at little more than cost to Galleria Fanta di Spada in Rome. The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper are shown in 1976 at the Biennale di Venezia, Venice, and at Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Paris, and in 1977 at Brooks Jackson Gallery Iolas, New York.
1977 Thek has a large exhibition, Paul Thek/Processions, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. The exhibition comprises a complete survey of Thek's work as well as a new environment with The Tower of Babel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Bandwagon and The Burning Bridge. The exhibition catalogue, written by its director Suzanne Delehanty, presents a detailed description and iconographical interpretation of the installations by Thek and the Artist's Co-op. In an unpublished essay, written at the time of the exhibition, Harald Szeemann writes: 'Paul Thek is one of the few artists who understood that a new unity had to be created after 1967...and 1968.... He is one of the few...who saw the discovery of unity as his particular bent. Such finding of unity can be defined as being embedded in a historically mature and autonomous artistic creative power which has achieved reality in the form of a second and parallel nature, brought about as a result of the interpretation of nature which has drawn together the respective activities of the religious believer, the archaeologist, the mythologist, and the artist....This model has found valid elaboration in the works of Thek, in his formulations of haptic and visual experiences, which he has brought into harmony with conceptual as well as lived-through dimensions.'