Gemeentemuseum Den Haag has purchased a key work by American artist Paul Thek (1933-1988). Thek painted the piece, entitled Farewell to Washington Square (Self-Portrait), in 1972, shortly before returning to Europe. With this new acquisition the museum now owns three extraordinary works by Thek. The purchase was possible thanks to the support of the Mondrian Fund and the Rembrandt Association, courtesy of its Titus Fund, Coleminks Fund and Post-war and Contemporary Art Fund.
Farewell to Washington Square (Self-Portrait) is typical of the work of Paul Thek. His paintings, sculptures and drawings are often personal, spiritual and emotionally charged. This large, mysterious painting was created at his studio in Prince Street, close to Washington Square in New York. It is a self-portrait that is open to multiple interpretations. We see Thek – recognisable by his shoulder-length hair and beard – through a window, at work in his studio. Around the edges there are associative images of iconic objects and earlier works by Thek, including swans, grapes and cherries. The half-peeled orange in the centre of the composition is striking. In the top right we see the reflection of the yellow lights illuminating the former World Trade Center (Twin Towers).
The painting is an important addition to the other works by Paul Thek in Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’s collection (which will be known as Kunstmuseum Den Haag from this October). In 2012, the museum purchased a 1971 triptych with the help of the Rembrandt Association, the Mondrian Fund, Bank Giro Loterij, SNS Reaal Fonds and the friends of the museum. Two years later, in 2014, the museum was again able to take advantage of a unique opportunity with the help of the Rembrandt Association, the Mondrian Fund and VSBfonds, when it purchased a sculpture from the Technological Reliquaries series which Thek created in the mid-1960s. It features a display case made of transparent perspex containing a wax imprint of a skinned arm (Untitled, 1965-1966).
Spirituality, sexuality and doubts about technological progress play a key role in the work of Paul Thek (1933-1988). His paintings, works on paper and installations are full of references to religion, literature, pop culture and daily life. From the early 1960s onwards Thek regularly travelled from the United States to Western Europe, including to the Netherlands, where he collaborated with friends on large installations. Many of these ‘environments’, as they were known, were lost after his death.
Over the past few decades the art world has re-evaluated Thek’s work. The travelling exhibition Paul Thek – The Wonderful World That Almost Was (at Witte de With in Rotterdam in 1995), the retrospective in 2011 at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and also the major exhibition at Reina Sofia in Madrid in 2009 all convinced a wider audience of Thek’s reputation as a leading artist of the 1960s and 70s.