Jonathan Ned Katz: Paul Thek at Prince Studio: 1960

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This memoir was written for the exhibit "Paul Thek And His Circle In The 1950s," at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, April 12 - July 7, 2013, co-curated by Jonathan David Katz and Peter Harvey.

In 1960, I took the elevator in a nondescript office building near the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, walked across a drab hallway, and opened the door of Prince Studio. There I found the boss, Jack Prince, whirling clutsily around the office demonstrating pirouettes observed the night before at New York City Ballet. I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, opening the door of her house in a black and white world and discovering a Technicolor universe.

Jack Prince ran a textile design studio where I joined Paul Thek, Joe Raffael, Irene Maria Fornes, Carolyn Brady, Robert Quijada, Julius Perlmutter, Bobby and Lois Adler, Carol Joyce, Audrey Flack, Estelle Lavin, Malcolm Spooner, and other artists. Most of us worked free-lance, creating designs for printed textiles, and hoping for sales. The artists, and their visiting friends and lovers--writers Susan Sontag and Alfred Chester, photographer Peter Hujar, set designers Beni Montresor and Peter Harvey, dancer Eric Braun--were gay, straight, and undecided (me, then). But Jack’s openly gay flamboyance made Prince Studio a queer countercultural oasis smack in the middle of New York City’s then flourishing Garment District.

I well remember the repeated injunction of my and Paul’s mentor in textile art, the experienced designer Carol Joyce, as she urged us boys to create saleable designs: “No amoebas, no snakes, no sperm, no testicles, no penises!” Under her tutelage, for the sake of sales, we conquered any inclination to include phalluses among our flowers.

Jack Prince’s Studio provided a free-spirited place in which serious visual artists could make a small but livable income creating commercial art during the day and noncommercial art at night. When Paul Thek required hair to attach to his weird meat sculptures, Carol Joyce, always impeccably dressed, accompanied Paul to a barber shop on the lower east side. There, they collected hair from the floor to include in Paul’s art, ignoring the strange looks of the guys getting haircuts.

I joined Paul, Carol, and other Prince Studio artists on an anti-nuke march during which, on the edge of Central Park, we heard a loud, ugly call from the sidelines: “Commie, kike, queer!” To which Carol immediately and quietly quipped: “Well, I’m two out of three, but I’m not telling which two.”

Today, fifty-plus years after I first opened the door of Prince Studio, I recall sweet Paul’s giggle as we laughed together at a magazine photo of a man in a purple dress, with a big hat, lots of jewelry, a Catholic bishop, in full bishop drag, as he denounced the unnatural, perverted acts of homosexuals. Paul’s laughing at this absurdity stays with me now.

Written: April 2, 2013. Published on April 17, 2013.