Paul Thek’s Diver: A Retrospective, which was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 21 – January 9, was the exhibit on everyone’s lips this fall. The show was, at its core, an appropriate and admirable survey of this versatile painter, sculptor, and installation artist’s brief career; it was morbid, poignant, and fit to burst, a jolt of strangeness and reflective spirit. A convalescence. As a result, Thek, who died of AIDS in 1988 and has since virtually disappeared from the fickle memory of the contemporary art scene, is experiencing a profound rebirth. People can’t seem to get enough of him… and although I can’t say I’m as obsessed as some, I will say that Diver certainly had me intrigued. For one, death, ephemerality, and “thing-ness” were Thek’s bag. He liked to ask the big questions— about life, time, the individual, and the great beyond. For those of you who know me, I’m sure you understand the attraction.
So, to the point. I would like to share with you my review of Diver, perhaps my favorite (and, I think, most successful) piece I wrote this past semester. Of course, it’s less a standard review than it is a poem. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to, as James Schuyler once said, “go the next step and flatten my response into conventional prose.” Go figure. It’s troublesome, but not surprising. I’m still having trouble crossing over.
[PS- My actual format is much more playful and jagged, but wordpress does not seem to want to be my friend today, so I encourage you to use your imagination. Merci.]
Sleeping With the Fishes
The Abominable Fishman is real and so close
to being alive it kills him— a slick and outstretched menace
who consumes by preserving and grips a slimy secret:
Time is River we all must dive in.
(But not he,
he has always been in the water, caught
somewhere between the pink and the blue.)
on the day that is not his birthday, he stares at his Cake—
an Aztec pyramid
of waxen flesh encased in glass,
its glistening cross-sections adorned with
wisps of hair and sweet pink candles, perpetually unlit—
sticks out his tongue, plunges below the surface,
and finds another friend to add to his suit.
He considers himself a (de)composer, forever listening
for the tune of the end, twanging a steady beat on his Wishbone,
and clinging to that thing-ness
which summons (the creature) Death to the door.
It began by putting meat on display in boxes
sometimes painted, sometimes raw
bribing Death with the simulacra of bloody synecdoche
(but still, it would not come)
Wild, he removed the hunks from their cages
stringing them on cables, draping them over tables,
perching them on the seat of a Sedan Chair like cheese in a mousetrap—
forcing those who dared look to bend low,
to become afflicted, or aware
of their own weight but still—
Many of his lures were lost in the current
(mourned by the few who saw them cast)
He tried leaving a trail of regressive rubble:
spotted fungi, building blocks, bronze babies, soft idioms
but those, too, curdled and sank. When he thinks of this
the Fishman frowns and crawls
back under his altar, or paces the Whitney
with eyes closed.
While There’s Still Time Let’s Go Out and Feel Everything,
he coughs. There’s water in his mouth.
He turns over and floats, arms above his head in devotion, surrender
There is always time for him.
The Face of [his]God is a clock.
Soon, soon again he will go under,
and next time we see him
he’ll be larger—
he will have been growing
during all the hours
since he has gone down.
 The Fishman (1970)
 Time is River (1988)
 Birthday Cake (1964)
 Wishbone (1974)
 Untitled (Sedan Chair) (1968)
 Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted (1985)
 Tar Baby (1975-1976)
 While There’s Still Time Let’s Go Out and Feel Everything (1987)
 The Face of God (1988)