Paul Thek’s Birthday Cake Of Flesh

Fred McDarrah, 10-24-64 Paul Thek “Birthday Cake of Flesh” Stable Gallery, 7.25 x 4.5 in., image via Sotheby’s

I lost out on everything I bid on in Kenny Schachter’s fourth no-reserve sale at Sotheby’s, which ended today. The one I got outbid on the most, at least percentage-wise, was Fred McDarrah’s October 1964 photo of Paul Thek and his sculpture, titled, “Birthday Cake of Flesh.” Estimated at USD 300-400, the print sold for $4,410. [It is, of course, of Thek, not by Thek. Is this a record price for a McDarrah, though? Three vintage prints of McDarrah’s Kusama photos sold for $5,040 last year]

The print was in a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s London in 2019-2020. Maybe Schachter, who’s been hyping and trading Thek works a lot the last few years, picked it up there.

The photo was at the Stable Gallery, where Thek had his first show, which McDarrah covered for the Village Voice. The notes and stamps on the back of the print relate to the caption and size for printing the photo in the paper. So this print’s seen some stuff.

Birthday Cake is, of course, made of pigmented wax that resembles a pyramid of slabs of meat, part of Thek’s Technological Reliquaries series. According to Cynthia Hahn’s The Reliquary Effect, Thek also titled the work, Josef Albers Homage to the Square. And though I can see how the top-down view of a 4-tier pyramid by itself would work, the strong diagonals of the vitrine’s steel, and the horizontal bands etched or painted into the sides seem like they’d obliterate the reference. Is the cake even a pyramid? Or is it a ziggurat?

Paul Thek, Birthday Cake, 1964, but dated in Parkett and beyond as 1967, photo: D. James Dee

NEXT MORNING UPDATE: Bryan Hilley’s search for other photos of Birthday Cake turn up a mystery that is a problem. This color photo of Birthday Cake by D. James Dee ran in black&white in Holland Carter’s 1991 Parkett essay on Thek, one of the first reassessments of the work after Thek’s death in 1988. [pdf] And it’s given the date of 1967.

All the other Technological Reliquaries are listed as 1965-66, which would make Birthday Cake a late Reliquary, even a culmination. Also, Cotter reads the glassed off meat as wistful commentary on the liberation of the Summer of Love, which, at 35, had just passed Thek by. Obviously, Cotter’s take is more involved than that, and boomers can bemoan the telescoping passage of time all they want. But it seems important to understand Thek’s work to know the time and place he made and showed his work, and for Birthday Cake and other meat works, it was October 1964 at the Stable Gallery, six months after Andy Warhol showed his Brillo boxes there.

Paul Thek, Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965, image:, where they get the timeline right in their 2010 audioguide

I think he was up to something else.