Paul Thek died from complications of AIDS, in Manhattan on August 10, 1988. Paul was 54 years old.
“Thek writes to [friend] Charles Shuts: 'As you may know NYC is ripe with plague now, "aids"....The gay scene here now is vastly different then what you may recall, many have died of it and sexual conduct has undergone enormous changes... also very highly increased social opproprium because of fears of its spreading to the hetero population.' Later, he writes to Shuts: 'It's better than The Plague! We get to go! It's better than dying alone for your own silly little reason! This way we get to go out with a real BANG!!”
Paul is perhaps best known for The Tomb, 1967, sometimes mistitled “Death of a Hippie,” which Paul vehemently objects is incorrect, stating, “...that his work was incompatible with a ‘commercialized chic revolution.’” The Tomb is a life size portioned wax casting of Paul’s body, lying on the floor and set inside a built ‘tomb’ with the form, “...dressed in painted jeans and jacket, which hid the wooden torso, and had psychedelic medallions placed on [sic] its cheeks. Its head rested on two pillows while the shoulder length blonde hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and mustache enhanced its corporeality...Next to the figure Thek had arranged objects including glass goblets, private letters and a pouch containing the wax fingers severed from the bloody right hand.” The mouth is agape and indicates a blue tongue inside, some have believed to represent a poisoning. Noted as a highly “corruptible figure,” due to its construction, this like many of Paul’s work hold a similar ephemeral and transient media based construction, and from here I would point toward his experience when visiting the Catacombs in Sicily in 1963 with Peter Hujar. He began making his Technological Reliquaries in New York after this trip. These were forms constructed with wax and other media composing various effigies of body parts or flesh. Arms, heads, fingers, slabs of meat, etc., would be encased in plexiglass vitrines of various shape and architecture. In discussing these Paul would share, “I hope the work has the innocence of the Baroque Crypts in Sicily; their initial effect is so stunning you fall back for a moment and then it’s exhilarating. There are 8,000 corpses -- not skeletons, corpses -- decorating the walls, and the corridors are filled with windowed coffins. I opened one and picked up what I thought was a piece of paper; it was a piece of dried thigh. I felt strangely relieved and free. It delighted me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers. We accept our thing-ness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.”
Paul would continue working in such fleeting compositions as his practice of painting upon newspaper indicates. This fragile media choice evolved in 1969 after discussing with friend Eva Hesse (another artist working in degradable media), and was a foundation for his work that continued to entice him the rest of his life. I imagine the effort of his hand effortlessly puncturing the corpses thigh, could be aesthetically rendered quite readily in the texture and form paint becomes once it has dried atop newspaper. One can easily identify the transient movement this efforts, the specificity of this one newspaper--painted, in turn devolving into the historical disappearance when following this to its logical conclusion. The news can be forgotten, the word, the event, the people and places which were summoned into the fold of the newspaper, appropriated for the media support which in turn becomes the destructive alchemical combination toward each one’s end. “Thek saw beauty in the mundane, fleeting character of the everyday and preserved it by painting vignettes over the daily paper, with fragment of news peeking through around the edges of his compositions...He did not so much kill off the original text and image as he damaged them. Only a whiff of the record of those times remained.”
When I was 21, I moved to NYC. It was August 5, 1988. Paul Thek would be dead from AIDS in less than a week. I had to ask myself, how will I stay safe from the HIV virus? Can I? I had moved to perhaps to what was then the viral center. I found my way to the Gay Men's Health Clinic, where I could participate one evening in a safe sex seminar, learning what I could do to prevent reception of HIV, and if I were HIV positive, how to ensure I could not transmit it to another person. Equally important. What I learned that night didn't sound like fun. It certainly wasn't the gay, glamorous, open, free-loving world any young single man would have enjoyed. I was twinkling right out of the closet, and ready to explore, date, and play. After being taught by religion and also abused by peers that I was considered: wrong, sinful, amoral, sick, etc..., I found the courage to accept myself. I learned from the GMHC this acceptance still meant that when I wanted to find love, connection, relationship, it would have to be literally, "under wraps." Sometimes I think back and wonder if I wasn't in one room, wrapped from head to toe in Saran-Wrap, while the date was in another room altogether. Staying Safe. #onmenotinme Hot. Wild. Frisky (not). Nonetheless, I followed what I learned that evening, and have remained healthy ever since. I can no longer indulge, support, or have time for those I hear complain about the vaccine, claiming it is dangerous, or ineffective, or that they have to wear a mask. I have already survived one deadly epidemic, as have so many others like me, and I will survive this one too. My actions work toward keeping not just myself, but all those around me, people I don't even know, safe. Getting vaccinated and wearing a mask when necessary, are the two simplest actions needed to keep oneself safe, and also extends this out, carefully considering everyone else as well.
We are all far more fragile than we ever want to believe, think, or feel. Life is but a momentary blink; oftentimes random, maybe accidental, and fraught with peril in ways we cannot fathom or perceive. It is also joyous, miraculous, full of love, and peopled with angels who continually surprise. And so, because of all of this and even in spite of it, our innate resilience strives in all ways toward life. We will be parted from this Earth, like dust to the corners, but our experience of life now, will impact those others who come after. If you cannot bring yourself to consider how the footprints you make upon this Earth affect the path of those next to you, those behind you, then you yourself become a viral infector, but a dumb one; willfully ignorant and mute, lost to yourself and unfortunately spreading far and wide, causing the very destruction you claim to save yourself from.