ARTS: EXHIBITIONS: The last of the bohemians

In the beginning, there was Paul Thek. Adrian Dannatt profiles the elusive figure whose Sixties experiments prefigured much of today's fashionable art
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PAUL THEK claimed that "one of the main functions of art is revival". In his own case nothing could be more true. There is the current revival of his own career (a career that died long before his own premature demise in 1988, aged 54), displayed in a retrospective now touring Europe that has transformed him overnight from hippie leftover to hip cult. But there is also the revival of his ideas and images by fashionable young artists. This is as obvious in Damien Hirst's elegantly displayed raw flesh as in Marc Quinn's casts of his own body, or the scattered objects of many a modish installation. Thek even employed an Italian artisan wood-carver to make kitsch figures, just like Jeff Koons decades later. Hirst may not have seen Thek's Technological Reliquaries from 30 years ago, nor Quinn his Pyramid Self-Portrait, but the best plagiarism often operates in ignorance of the original. The influential Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley has said of Thek: "Now all of a sudden he is being written back into history. Why? The obvious reason is that so much recent art looks like Paul Thek's."

If Thek's themes - the body, entropy, social ritual and redemptive magic - could not be more topical, his name meant little to any artist under 40 until earlier this year, when his retrospective began in Rotterdam. But in the Sixties, Thek was a groover of incomparable reputation and recognition, who could have given Hirst himself a run for his money. The difference being that artists of Thek's generation - he was born in Brooklyn in 1933 - scorned facile media interpretations of their work (mea culpa), and stood in radical opposition to the charms of the mainstream and attendant publicity.

Thek might have been delighted and vindicated - revenged, even - by his currently "hot" status; but, considering the vagaries of his character, any reaction, from destructive anger to silent retreat, might have resulted. For - in another contrast to today's teen art-stars, who play the brat for the tabloids but are as good as gold with important dealers - Thek was notoriously difficult to work with. He might refuse to put anything together for an exhibition, then not bother to appear at the opening - he might even denounce both gallery and show.

Such tactics were inconceivable in the slick world of 1980s Manhattan where Thek ended his life, but valid in the spiritually richer, physically poorer, altogether rougher "alternative" scene in which he grew up. Thek came of age in the Sixties and lived the hippie dream, sampling the full range of sensory experiences of that era. He was always busy with myriad projects - he collaborated with an Italian rock band, wrote his own lyrics and acted the part of a painter in an uncompleted feature film - and was never far from the most interesting figures of his generation: best friend of Susan Sontag, set designer for Robert Wilson and choreographer Glen Tetley, yet equally renowned for cycling round Amsterdam with his nose painted red. His was a peripatetic, glamorous existence - everything, in fact, the reader of a Sunday paper could hope for.

As a dedicated nomad who refused the obligations of nationality, Thek lived all over the world, in Miami and Amsterdam, Paris, Rotterdam, Fire Island, Cologne, Stockholm and Lucerne: although he never actually owned a home of his own, he had houses at his disposal everywhere. For long periods after his departure from New York in 1967, he lived in solitude on the Italian island of Ponza. Here he spent the nights in a room painted ocean blue and decorated with Catholic icons, the days lying in his boat at sea, smoking hashish, and reading and re-reading A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. In the Seventies, Thek could be found in Rome, practising new states of consciousness with psychedelic drugs, drifting round the city at the height of its elegant decadence in a fog of sexual and narcotic encounters. Thek moved back to his home town of New York at the start of the Eighties art-world boom (a horribly inappropriate moment for a freewheeling graduate of the counter-revolution to come home); only then did he begin to regret his lost years of vagabondage. "I did myself a great disservice by staying in Europe so long."

From the success of his 1966 show at Manhattan's prestigious Pace gallery, to his return to the city 15 years later, when he had to work first in "a kind of supermarket" and then as hospital porter, there is an enjoyable frisson to Thek's rise and fall - the ideal narrative parabola of bohemia, which these conservative times would construe as just punishment for such licentious liberty. Thek's case is, however, more complex than legend would have it. Even the easy comparison between, say, the Reliquaries and current art obscures Thek's trajectory - because these pieces are from his earliest period, before he left for Europe, whilst the later work has been lost or thrown away, as he intended. For Thek soon abandoned the singular works of his youth. During his self-imposed European exile, instead of paintings and objects he moved on to large collaborative projects, strange environments created by a communal group which avoided personal attribution and any benefits of the star system. Not only was this group in continual flux, changing personnel and continents with equal ease, but their installations were entirely ephemeral, eminently uncollectable. If nothing else, they helped Thek prove that one can still escape the art system. If one moves often enough and makes only perishable, casual work, it will finally be possible to become overlooked, unknown and poor again.

Thek's retrospective does justice to his work's full variety, from photorealist paintings derived from television images, to eloquent acrylic drawings on newspaper, and the haunting Fishman, a suspended figure held aloft on the ceiling by a shoal of fish. His farewell to America in 1967 was the bizarre The Tomb, also known as Death of a Hippie, featuring a scale model of the artist laid to rest in a ritualistic interior. The retrospective also tries to recreate the atmosphere of the communal installation period - strewn newspaper, a broken table supported by garden gnomes and scattered junk, the sort of festive detritus that museum staff loathe - but only in period photos does one sense the funky anarchy of those years.

Today the lost poetry of that hippie era seems radiantly appealing, not least on a video loop showing the long-haired, be-flared Thek dancing to "Mr Bojangles", strolling on the beach, sitting in his decrepit Dutch studio - a moody genius in the Jim Morrison mould.

By the end of his life, ill and forgotten, with a reputation for paranoid misogyny, mad fits and impossible conspiracy theories, Thek consoled himself with his strong personal Catholic mysticism. Earlier in his life this had led to a fascination with the Capuchin tombs outside Palermo, where he was photographed with the dead. Now he visited Benedictine monks in Vermont, and tried to join an order. He was hoping to be accepted to a Carthusian monastery when he died from Aids in August 1988.

After Thek's death, his life-long friend Susan Sontag, who'd already dedicated Against Interpretation to him, did the same again with her book Aids and its Metaphors. Robert Wilson agreed to be his executor, handling a large estate of neglected work - including Thek's voluminous notebooks, 80 of which were found after his death, full of incantory Christian prayers and wry jottings. One of these fascinating, obsessive journals is left open at his exhibition, at the pages bearing the bitter words: "Some people are the people other people want to be." As far as a new generation of young artists is concerned, Paul Thek has become one of those people.

! 'Paul Thek: the Wonderful World That Almost Was': Berlin Neue Nationalgalerie, 7 Dec 1995 to 18 Feb 1996.