A ‘secret’ campsite, loosely assembled on a red Persian carpet in a forest with mice scampering about, is frozen in time, frozen in bronze. This is Paul Thek’s Personal Effects of the Pied Piper. The prolonged absence of the camp’s maker, the flute-playing man in multi-color clothing, is keenly reflected in the work: the book and the baguette sport holes, courtesy of the hungry mice; the potatoes are charred; the fire has long been extinguished.
You may recall Pied Piper’s tale: he played his musical pipe and led the rats and mice away from the German village Hamelin to save it from the plague; and when the villagers didn’t pay him for his trouble as they had promised, he lured their children away into the mountains. While countless theories have floated through the centuries of who the Piper was—from the personification of death to a pedophile, from a cult leader to a job recruiter—in the world of contemporary art, this Pied Piper who had left his belongings behind at the encampment was none other than Thek. The curator Richard Flood has noted, like the Piper, the artist saw himself as “half savior and half destroyer.”
Trained at New York City’s art institutions—Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, the Arts Students League—Thek, in the 1960s, was caught in the middle of the Pop Art movement, to which he didn’t relate. He was more closely drawn to self-referential figures and poetry than what minimalism allowed. He ridiculed those around him, critics and artists alike. He took a piece of meat he made realistically out of latex and put it in a Warhol Brillo box. As artist and individual he was, it’s written, both arrogant and needy; he alienated almost everyone. In 1967 he took off to Europe where he remained for the next nine years.
He began working on the Piper’s leftovers in 1973; he had them cast in the winter of 1975-1976 at a foundry in Rome. But rather ironically—I’m thinking about the Piper and all—the foundry wasn’t paid. The foundry seized and destroyed several of the pieces. “The project,” Flood said, “would haunt [Thek] until his death.” He continued to work on variations, groupings of the ‘effects,’ in which he wanted to capture, as Thek wrote, “a scene of nature, an out-of-doors vignette.”
Personal Effects might be considered Thek’s parting gesture. He died of AIDS in 1988; he never achieved, while he was alive, the recognition he coveted—or as critics and scholars today say he deserved, the ability to seduce as the Piper had.
Additional sources: “Paul Thek: The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper,” video, Whitney Museum of American Art; Holland Cotter, “Believing Is Seeing (Or, the Meat Of the Matter),” New York Times, October 21, 2010; Peter Schjeldahl, “Out-There Man,” New Yorker, November 1, 2010.
(Image: Mice and book, objects from Personal Effects of the Pied Piper by Paul Thek, 1975-1976, bronze, Whitney Museum of American Art.)