American artist Paul Thek (1933-1988) first came to Europe in 1962, apparently by containership via Venezuela. Throughout that decade and the next he travelled and worked across the continent with a group calling themselves the Artist Co-op. That time in Thek’s practice is characterized by moving away from authorship and individuality in favour of collaborative living and art-making. He would further test the divide between artist and viewer through immersive spatial experiments, and his time in Europe yielded many quintessential collaborative processional works including ARK, PYRAMID, his contribution to Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 in 1972.
Shortly thereafter, in 1975, before returning to the United States, Thek foreshadowed the solitude of his later life by eschewing collective work to produce a series of etchings in Paris. The plates, said to have been discovered only after his death, tucked into paperback novels, are marked with quick line drawings of Thek’s recurrent themes such as the ‘Tower of Babel’ and his alter-ego the ‘Tar-baby’. “I wanted to be a Tar-baby”. Thek explained this difficult iconography to Richard Flood in a 1981 issue of Artforum: “I wanted people to become stuck in my ideas, so you couldn’t get away from them.” (Although the term ‘Tar-baby’ is recognized as a racist slur for African Americans, Thek – however naively – seems to be using the term by way of its OED definition as “a difficult problem which is only aggravated by attempts to solve it”.) Thek’s desire to entrance or ensnare combines with icons of ritual and procession in his use of banner motifs, featured in an etching proclaiming the title of his exhibition at Jan Mot Gallery: I AM, AM I?
Works by Paul Thek have been shown sporadically in Belgium, and only in group collection-based exhibitions such as Unexchangeable at WIELS in 2018 and Chambres d’Amis at S.M.A.K. in 2012. The most significant presentations of his work in this region date back to the Witte de With’s 1995 ‘Paul Thek: The Wonderful World That Almost Was, and Thek’s 1969 solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for which he co-created the now iconic artist book ‘A document made by Paul Thek and Edwin Klein’. This artist book contains a series of photographed still-lifes of everyday objects – cigarettes, Polaroids, mushrooms, porn magazines, etc. –, arranged on a double spread of ‘The International Herald Tribune’, pre-figuring Thek’s use of newspapers as canvases in his well-known newspaper drawings, some of which will also be included in Jan Mot’s exhibition.
Playing out Thek’s connection to book-making, print and paper, German artist Andrea Büttner has been invited by Jan Mot to curate an in-gallery library through which Thek’s world can be further explored.