A deep sense of loss pervades Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, the first large exhibition in the United States devoted to the work of Thek, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1988 at the age of 54. In the American art press, the critical response to the show, co-curated by Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky, has been characterised by an unusually apologetic tone. After enjoying considerable critical attention for his shows of the mid to late 1960s in New York, Thek, who lived in Europe for most of the following decade, is described as having (unjustly, regrettably) fallen off the map during the last two decades of his life. Insofar as it contributes to re-writing the artist’s career as a version of the old narrative of neglect and posthumous rediscovery, the remorseful tone of these assessments is somewhat misleading. Little of what’s on view at the Whitney justifies the current effort to neatly recuperate Thek’s production to the canon of 1960s and 1970s high art (and to the upper tiers of the art market). What the show perhaps inadvertently accomplishes is less dramatic and more subtly subversive: it questions the canon’s capacity to make room for certain idiosyncratic kinds of practices (performative, improvisational, simultaneously collective and highly personal) that never quite fit into neat art historical narratives and into the prevailing models of museum exhibition.

The elusive quality of Thek’s practice is especially evident in the work he produced in Europe from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s: immersive environments assembled from ephemeral materials (sand, tissues, newspapers) that the artist, sometimes assisted by a group of collaborators, would rework and develop through the entire duration of exhibitions timed to coincide with religious holidays and pagan seasonal celebrations. Little remains of this body of work, sometimes collectively referred to as ‘Processions’: a few photographs and a series of objects (modified wooden chairs to be worn over one’s shoulders, glass boxes to wear around one’s head) that, for all whimsical appeal, are striking mostly for the mute stubbornness with which they refuse to be looked at as anything but props for ceremonies whose meaning has long been lost.

To some extent, this quality is already evident in Thek’s earlier production: geometric Plexiglas boxes enclosing realistic (but not quite) wax sculptures of bloody slabs of meat and dismembered armor-coated limbs made after casts of the artist’s own arms and legs. On the face of it, this group of works (1963-67) seems more easily readable in terms of traditional object-production, and it is perhaps not incidental that it is through these ‘Meat Pieces’ and ‘Technological Reliquaries’ (a name later extended to the whole series) that Thek gained his early critical reputation and short-lived commercial success. Even these works, however, exude a mournful performative excess that doesn’t quite fit in with the prevailing critical narrative that reads them merely as a clever comment on the coolness of Minimalism and Pop. If they are a response to Minimalism, they are a response in the vein of the gritty, queer, impassioned adaptations of traditional plays and Hollywood classics that the Theater of the Ridiculous was presenting across town around the same years.

Thek’s ties to a queer downtown New York counterculture whose theatrics were often tinged with a conflicted yet deeply felt ethical zeal is perhaps most evident in ‘The Tomb’, 1967, a large installation the centerpiece of which was a life-size wax replica of the artist himself as a corpse. Reinstalled several times throughout the 1970s, the work was lost or destroyed in the early 1980s when the artist reportedly got tired of ‘burying [himself] over and over’. Often regarded as one of the lost masterpieces of the 20th century, ‘The Tomb’ seems in fact to have undergone a fate not unfitting for a work that was, for all intents and purposes, a performance by proxy.

The last several rooms of the show are devoted to Thek’s later work: bright turquoise seascapes and expanses of muted, fleshy pink scattered with dinosaurs and cherries, painted on newspaper sheets, and quick, colorful cityscapes and texts on small canvases. The texts, often appearing amidst explosions of clashing acid colors, veer between the darkly witty ‘Hurrah vacuii!!’, 1988, the oracular ‘The face of god’, 1988, and the anecdotal ‘Susan lecturing on Neitzsche’ [sic], 1987, whose title refers to no less than Susan Sontang, whose ‘Against Interpretation’, 1966, and ‘AIDS and its Metaphors’, 1988, are both dedicated to Thek—a detail that those eager to establish the artist’s uptown credentials seem always excited to emphasise. With theatrical flair, Thek often displayed the smaller paintings low on the wall, in flimsy faux bamboo frames mounted with a spot light, opposite children’s school chairs. While few of these works stand out on their own, together they make for striking expanded sketchbook, something between a private journal and the record of a relentless, practical, spiritual exercise.

Narratives of rediscovery are always gratifying. The measure of success of an exhibition like this one, however, will not be so much in the reinstatement of Thek as a central figure of the existing canon, but in the opening of a serious discussion regarding the institutional and historiographical conditions for expanding the canon, or whatever might become of it, to the truly eccentric.

Francesco Gagliardi is an artist and writer based in Toronto