Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), a giant of postwar painting and the originator, with Gerhard Richter, of Capitalist Realism, Pop Art’s darker German variant, is at last getting the retrospective he deserves. Polke’s signature non-signature style and exploration of unconventional materials and techniques have already made him a hero to several generations of painters. More of an influence on today’s artists, however, may be his embrace of multiple mediums and his frequent blurring of boundaries between them. This exhibition is the first to present Polke’s prints, photographs, films, installations and performances alongside his paintings and drawings.
The show, which will travel to London and Cologne, is massive, spanning nearly 50 years and comprising over 250 works. It includes images taken from art history, books on magic, naughty cartoons, television news, and Polke’s private life; materials such as found fabric, coal, adhesive tape, meteor dust and bubble wrap; and styles that range from debased Pop—dull colors and clotted Ben Day dots rendering ominous American-style consumerism—to hazy abstraction.
Serving as an introduction to the exhibition, and underscoring the diversity of Polke’s output, is an installation of a dozen or so mostly large, finished works from different periods of his career. Among them is a 1960s midnight blue wall hanging (sprinkled with cardboard circles replicating a star map on which the artist has traced a constellation of strings spelling S.P.O.L.K.E.), as well as a 2003 minimalist abstraction made from sewn-together fabrics. Running throughout is a selection of Polke's films, created from the 1970s on, which have never been previously exhibited
Everywhere major works jostle for space with apparently minor ones, underscoring Polke’s fluid and nonhierarchical approach to making art. For many of Polke's detractors, this approach makes even his most powerful works seem suspect. But Polke's primary concern was to skewer authority in all its forms, whether scientific (a work purporting to be a genetic history of cardboard chillingly recalls the Nazis) or artistic (don’t miss Polke and artist Christof Kohlhöfer’s hilarious filmic send-up of Conceptualsim).
Polke’s irreverent attitude had a lot to do with his biography. Born 1941 in Silesia (now part of Poland), Polke escaped with his family to West Germany when he was12; they eventually settled in Dusseldorf. The country’s willful amnesia regarding the Holocaust, and its growing fondness for consumer goods at a time of continued deprivation, sharpened Polke’s eye for false appearances. So did encountering Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy in the 1960s: Polke never bought in to the older artist's charismatic persona.
Polke's propensity for skepticism is evident from the start of the show, which opens with Ben Day dot paintings from the 1960s, derived from ads. These works subvert the optimistic tone of their source material, as in the case of an enlarged halftone image of two bathing beauties who look more grotesque than glamorous.
Somewhat later comes a group of paintings in which abstraction is equated with the German suppression of memories of the recent past, most obviously in one featuring a constructivist design that appears to incorporate the swastika. In keeping with Polke’s genius, though, many of these canvases—including a composition of four vertical stripes of different colors on a brown background, plus an arrangement of yellow squares on a gray blanket—are drop-dead gorgeous.
In the 1970s, Polke began to take photographs, which range from documentation of performative actions and tabletop sculptures to layered, aleatory pictures in which scenes from real life are manipulated into otherworldly visions. (Polke at that time was consuming heroic quantities of hallucinogens.) Many of these images cross the line into painting, as in a spectacular series of large-format pictures—blotched, blurred, stained and folded—of The Bowery and its denizens.
These experiments would inform Polke’s paintings of the 1970s and ’80s, both figurative and abstract. These include works like the terrific composition of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland on a background of found fabric printed with a pattern of soccer players, as well as a trio of dark abstractions made by sprinkling violet pigment onto wet paint and burnishing the result to iridescence once it dried. There are also amazing objects here that, in keeping with Polke’s approach to art, verge on not being artworks at all. These include a number of small crusted, stained and snail-tracked canvases on which Polke tested various materials—from silver leaf to poisonous pigment. They look astonishingly contemporary.
A grand finale of sorts consists of a room of Polke’s imposing "Watchtower" paintings—each incorporating an image that could be a hunting blind or a concentration camp guard’s tower. But in the spirit of Polke himself, the exhibition does not end here. Rather, it trails off over the course of another couple of galleries devoted to his xerographic works and "Printing Error" canvases, which feature blowups of irregularities the artist found in printed images.
Polke’s persistent undermining of anything resembling a fixed perspective or a higher truth resulted in a multivalent body of work in which there are no conclusions but only a multiplicity of images, ideas and meanings. En masse, his works induce bafflement, then exhaustion and finally, exhilaration.—Anne Doran