Sigmar Polke’s name isn’t (yet) up there with the giants of twentieth-century art. Maybe that’s because at every stage of his career he mocked, derided and rebelled against every art movement, historical legacy and consumerist ideal he encountered. Stuck in post-war Germany, between the Soviet realism of the East and the pop artistry of the West, Polke (1941-2010) fitted in nowhere, and pissed everyone off. If this major retrospective does its job, though, he’ll no longer be in the shadows of the likes of Warhol or his old pal Gerhard Richter.
The earliest works have their roots in the consumer-culture riffs of the pop-art movement. But instead of clever branding or pretty design such as Warhol’s soup cans, Polke paints neat images of buckets, socks, sausages and unbranded chocolate bars.
From there, we get the first of Polke’s ‘raster’ works – no dreadlocks here, just awesome hand-done dot paintings of newspaper photographs. Fashion models, food adverts, dancing girls – all are splashed on the canvas in pointillist style. Throughout these early works, Polke is aggressively mocking not only mass culture, but the art and artists it inspires.
And it only gets worse (or, better). He goes on to mimic the visual language of modern art in works filled with swirls and abstract geometric shapes. He makes a shed out of potatoes and wood, claims to have had a constellation named after him and depicts himself as a powdered drug. It’s all funny – and deeply cynical.
The 1970s brought hallucinogenic drugs into Polke’s life, so the works get weirder and more psychedelic. Chairman Mao’s huge face peers out at you in a multicoloured frenzy. Native Americans pray to giant mushrooms and men toke on hookah pipes. One pornographic painting sees a penis transform into a palm tree, another shows two women wringing out a giant towel-like member. Even while in a druggy haze, Polke’s wit stayed as acerbic as ever.
But his priorities changed and he became more interested in how paints and pigments work than in sticking two fingers up at society. Abstraction took over, and the later canvases are often stunning, shimmering works of painterly beauty. The ‘Negative Value’ series is especially good – morphing and changing colour as you walk past.
But cheap, commercial materials and simple, direct references are replaced by meteorite dust and soot, and an obsession with mythology. These later paintings are more obscure, less approachable, and a hell of a lot less fun than the earlier stuff. But despite this, they are inarguably dreamy and often wonderfully pretty. Taken as a whole, this show makes a brilliant case for Polke being remembered as one of the true giants of his generation. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he is a mean and witty artist. A German with a sense of humour: who knew?