A Sculptor’s Provocative Memorial Acknowledges the High Cost of Conflict

Paul Thek’s haunting sculpture looks beyond the pomp of traditional battle memorials

Warrior's Leg, Paul Thek, 1966-1967
The 1966-1967 sculpture, Warrior's Leg by Paul Thek, depicts with startling realism, the calf and foot of a soldier from the age of the Roman Empire, hacked off at the knee. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 1990

In Venice, on the square in front of the grand Dominican Church of Saints John and Paul (Zannipoli, in the Venetian dialect), stands a colossal bronze statue of a 15th-century military leader, Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary who led the republic's land forces when the city was at the height of its power. If it were not for the fact that Venice has few outdoor sculptures devoted to military figures, the looming equestrian statue would not be remarkable, as it is not much different from the thousands of other military statues that stand tall (or tall in the saddle) in most of the world's cities. In New York, on the slope of a hill in Central Park, Jagiello, a 15th-century Polish king and scourge of the Teutonic Knights, rises in the stirrups of his armored war horse, crossing two broadswords dramatically over his helmeted head, while half a mile away, just across from the Plaza Hotel, a serenely untroubled William Tecumseh Sherman, also on horseback, is led into posterity by a female figure representing Victory. This is what most military statuary is like: representations of glory and valor, the heroic and the hallowed. The hell of war knowingly spoken of by Sherman, the ghastly reality of death and dismemberment, are generally not what the commissioners of memorials require of sculptors.

On rare occasions, artists and city fathers agree that loss must be acknowledged, especially after a war, or a battle, that goes badly. In the small German town of Dottingen, near the Black Forest, a somber stone cross behind an empty helmet silently honors World War II dead from that village. On one of the most famous of all war monuments, Maya Lin's elegantly somber Vietnam Wall, names carved into polished black stone memorialize the dead. These memorials, and others like them, are not definitively antiwar statements—certainly Lin's masterpiece is meant also to do honor, not to protest—yet their designers and sculptors chose not to celebrate the glory and grandiosity that have been key to selling the idea of war for millennia.

In the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum, a strange, haunting sculpture also looks past the pomp of power to the circumstance of battle. The American artist Paul Thek completed the piece Warrior's Leg between 1966 and 1967. Encased in a Lucite box reminiscent of reliquaries that contain the bones of saints, the sculpture made of wood, wax, leather, metal and paint depicts, with startling realism, the calf and foot of a soldier from the age of the Roman Empire, hacked off at the knee.

Thek (pronounced "Tek") possessed a wide range of technical skills and an even wider range of aesthetic interests and intellectual concerns. His work was often in advance even of the avant-garde of the time, and though he sold some paintings and sculptures, he never enjoyed much success in his lifetime. (He died of AIDS at age 55 in 1988.) This may have been due in part to difficult, sometimes off-putting subject matter. But Thek himself was difficult, according to Carolyn Alexander of the New York gallery Alexander and Bonin, which represents his work: "Thek was not the easiest person, and his gallery relationships often foundered." Alexander's partner, Ted Bonin, elaborates: "He didn't really care if the art world liked his work, or liked him."

Better known in Europe than in his own country, Thek was a keen observer of popular culture and its symbiotic technologies. "I'm extremely interested in using and painting the new images of our time," he wrote in 1963, "particularly those of television and the cinema. The images themselves, when transposed, offer a rich, and for me, an exciting source of what I consider a new mythology." For example, during the early 1960s, Thek painted a series of TV screens—he called them "Television Analyzations"—that were at once ordinary and mysterious, iconic and ironic. In one, a woman's lips are shown in close-up above a pearl necklace, as if prefiguring the allure of the shopping channels.

Thek was particularly fascinated by reliquaries—he fabricated boxes around such odd bits of anthropological detritus as false teeth and a birthday cake. The Warrior's Leg, and a similarly realistic arm (also at the Hirshhorn), are what some critics called his "meat pieces." Many of these are realistic depictions of slabs of raw beef in transparent boxes, or, in one wry example, in a Brillo box of the kind made famous by Andy Warhol.

One hallmark of an exceptional work of art is its ability to remain relevant. The countless statues that celebrate great victories and honor heroes of wars past stir the emotions of those who remember those wars, but as time and generations pass, their power wanes. From dramas of life and death, to the vivid memories promised by Shakespeare's Henry V, to the cool appraisals of history books, gradually but inevitably, all wars, and the battles that decide their outcomes, recede toward that distant plain on which the Aecheans vanquished Troy. We look at the larger-than-life statues of warriors whose names once stiffened the spines and lifted the hearts of all who heard them, and somehow they are just statues, no longer much more than bronze or marble. But in Thek's sad, disembodied leg, left on some ancient field of the artist's imagining, we see a monument that despite its ancient trappings, defies time. This is an unsentimental memorial to horror and loss—war's unrelenting companions—a grim reminder that even as the bands play on, some will no longer march.

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