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Richard Flood discusses Paul Thek's "Hippopotamus" from Technological Reliquaries (1965)


Richard Flood


September 1999

Institution Walker Art Center
The piece that I feel the closest to is Paul Thek's Hippopotamus, mainly because a number of years ago -- maybe it was 1972 -- I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania and there was an exhibition of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which was on the campus. I had never seen anything like it before, not anything. It just completely changed my understanding of what art could be. He was using traditional materials like bronze. There were a number of bronzes in there, but I'd never seen them used to achieve such a kind of homey effect. Somehow, everything, even if it was bronze, looked like it had been made out of mud. He was using newspapers. There were pieces which the curator had gone to a lot of trouble to bring in from various places and, then, to watch him turn the whole thing into an installation was enormously exciting. I just stumbled on it. I knew the curator who was very nice and let me hang around.

What Thek started crafting in the center of this double-tiered space was something called Uncle Tom's Cabin -- it's a longer title and I'm not remembering it right now -- which had as its core a bath tub fountain. I would just start talking to him while he was on breaks. He was a very conflicted Catholic and I was a very conflicted Catholic at that point. He was a lot more conflicted than I ever thought was possible. He was also an enormously troubled person about the state of the world and the state of the world then very much included Vietnam. He had punctuated the work that he was making radically because of Vietnam. He had originally been showing at Pace Gallery, which at that moment in time was very associated with minimalism and everything was very crisp, very right angled, very unyielding materials. He began to do these glass and steel vitrines but they were filled with corrosive flesh, which he was sculpting out of something called dental moulage, which is a very quick setting wax, and putting these horrifying lumps of flesh or in some cases beautifully crafted arms and legs that were sheathed in things like butterfly wings. So, it was either these limbs of heroes from this impossible mythological past or this raw flesh. It was really his response to an art world that he thought was completely incapable of responding to the urgency of the culture in which it existed.

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Type: Commentary, curatorial commentary
Source: Richard Flood, Chief Curator, Walker Art Center, commenting on Paul Thek's "Hippopotamus" from Technological Reliquaries (1965), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 1999.
Rights: Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009