Sigmar Polke: The Painter as Alchemist – reviews and commentary


Standard Blue by Vincent Galen Johnson (2014)

Blue World.VJohnson.2014.Incognito

Blue world by Vincent Galen Johnson (2014)

Blue Rush.VJohnson.2014

Blue Rush by Vincent Galen Johnson (2014)

These three small blue paintings are made as experiments in art. They were all completed in 2014. In thinking about my own desire to maximize my own creative passions, I decided to compile this collection of reviews and articles about the life and work of Sigmar Polke. I first saw his work in New York during the German invasion of the NYC artworld during the 1980’s. I don’t think I was aware of how much of an alchemist Polke was even at that time, yet the work I saw was clearly full of life and great visual power. My own reception to Polke’s work has grown exponentially over the years as I became much more intimately involved in seeing his work, reading about it, and thinking through it. Like Polke, I too worked with photography for a number of years. So now that I find myself painting again seriously for the first time in over two decades, its a great joy to relive some of the past and consider the present moment in time – as to what is the exact precise state of high art today. It seems that for certain the material world of art has regained its footing – while Conceptual Art still roars ahead using fabricators. Yet there are still countless artists living and working by their own hands, their own skills and talents, that offer their own primordial ways of working and of seeing into and out of the world. What I have found in my recent experiences with painting is how much psychological struggle can come from ever work – even works where I’m convinced that they’re done, until they tell me weeks later that something more can be added. This distinction in the way a medium works – capturing a moment in time – a slide of reality, to be savored in the future, versus the much slower practice of painting gives me comfort in knowing how much range my own practice can have on a daily engagement.

Vincent Johnson

Artist and writer in Los Angeles

April 17, 2014


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Seeing Out Loud: Saltz on MoMA’s Frustratingly Near-Great Sigmar Polke Retrospective

People look at artworks displayed at a major retrospective of German artist Sigmar Polke entitled 'Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010' during a preview of the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, New York, USA, 09 April 2014. “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling extravagant “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” is really good. How could it not be, with more than 260 works by a great artist on hand? When Polke died at 69 in 2010, John Baldessari observed that “Any one [Polke] move can provide a career for a lesser artist.” The Whitney curator Chrissie Iles said, “I don’t like using terms like ‘master,’ but Polke is a master; he knows it, and we know it.” I think of him as a Rosetta Stone for young artists, one whose material glee, anarchic inventiveness, and hallucinogenic Blakean imagination puts him the same influential postwar class with Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and his old friend and nemesis Gerhard Richter. He created his own ravishingly visual, impish blends of Pop, Conceptualism, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Constructivism, and Process Art, all replete with philosophical heft, social bite, and an extraordinary combination of chaos and control.

It’s a godsend to be able to see all this work he made. Yet “Alibis” is that bitter thing: a show of a great artist with great work that fails to be great. Certainly it’s not nearly as large, focused, or well selected as he deserves. Billed as the first Polke survey to contain all of the media he tackled, “Alibis” takes a rapid-fire, cocktail-shaker, look-how-much-he-did, glance-and-move-on approach. At MoMA we’re set upon by a barrage of art, jam-packed into ten galleries on the second floor. It does deliver the mad atmosphere, breakneck industriousness, and frenetic vortices of Polke’s artistic talent and all that it generated. But when you really stand still in “Alibis,” get quiet within yourself, and look around, there are far too few moments when you’re overcome with the sheer strange acidic gorgeousness of his art.

Why? Only a little over a third of what’s on hand is painting, and most of it is hung cheek-by-jowl. I love Polke in all the media that he worked in, but without painting as the clear foundational cornerstone of a major retrospective, his accomplishment is shortchanged, and audiences are denied the art’s full brunt and cosmic beauty. MoMA’s lack of curatorial vision and awkward architecture conspire against visual experience. The show needed more space, even if it meant spilling onto another floor, as the Gerhard Richter and Martin Kippenberger shows did. This season, MoMA gave all of PS1 to Mike Kelley, and a Polke show there would have been tremendous. I suspect that the museum is banking on the art world’s deep admiration for Polke to ensure that there won’t be a negative word written about this show.

The museum is also making gestures toward his kind of anarchy. For example, there are no wall texts. I eventually adjusted to that, and to relying on the free newsprint guide for details. The uninitiated, however, will find it impossible to follow his development or get any sense of how prescient Polke was throughout his career. Oh, MoMA, your ideas about the language of exhibitions stagger.

Still, as insufficient as “Alibis” is, nobody should skip it. This is Polke we’re talking about, after all. There are sound pieces, videos, a slide show of old illustrations transformed into bleary beings, and films that let us see the tall grinning bespectacled German doing antic things. (His nearsightedness was exacerbated by his close-in hand-painting of hundreds of thousands of “raster dots” — his gritty, undulating answer to Roy Lichtenstein’s regular mechanical Ben-Day dots.) One huge yellowish beauty is coated in what looks like grime floating in syrupy albumen but that turns out to be meteorite granules floating in resin. Painting as stardust made visible. A nearby dazzler has silver leaf and Neolithic tools in an abstract field of synthetic resin. These doozies are modern cave paintings, abstract nebulas. Don’t miss the best-titled painting in recent art history, Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! — a perfect comment on the absurdity of making art, and on the uncanny feeling artists often have that they aren’t doing it entirely on their own.

There are scores of prints, drawings, and works on paper including the 1968 watercolor Polke as Drug — Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe, an apt equivalent of what an artist does at work. Nearby is the cartoony Malevich Looks Down on Pollock, a ballpoint-pen sketch of a plain square above a bunch of squiggles on the floor beneath it that offers a wry comment about Polke’s preference for Constructivism over Abstract Expressionism. Polke was among the most innovative photographers ever, and the show includes scores of photos that have been dripped-on, worked-over, cut-up, reprinted, Xeroxed, or otherwise messed with. Near the exhibition’s end are 21 color prints that look like sunbursts on pink grounds. These works were made by exposing the paper to a chunk of uranium that Polke kept in a lead box in his studio. There are weird mechanisms, like Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another, which consists of a wooden stool with a motor that does just what the title says, as if a lost testicle is perpetually circling its mate, trying to create a spark or break away from its gravitational field.

If you want to avoid being bombarded, I recommend standing in front of the wall with three of the Heron paintings from 1968 and 1969. Beautiful birds in arabesque lines with kinetic reeds and lyrical water, salmon-colored outlines and pale-blue hues: They all merge with the grids of patterned fabric that they’re painted on. This is kitsch as exquisiteness, wallpaper as tour de force, a shattering of molds about what is decoratively cliché and what is painterly grace. One of the five mid-’80s paintings of towers is done in enamel on bubble wrap, so the image floats free, the stretcher bars show through, and the painting takes on an entirely new material and spiritual presence somewhere between ectoplasmic apparition and UFO or Roman wall painting. Other paintings of towers, which could depict concentration camps or just forest-ranger stations, are rendered in either silver oxide, polymer, dry pigment, silver nitrate, or natural resins, and show us a colorist as melodious as the great Veronese, one who is as pictorially complex as Rubens.

In fact, Polke is in a league with Tintoretto when it comes to being in total control of vast amounts of painterly space. See the gigantic painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, from 1991. It’s painted on translucent synthetic fabric and hangs about a foot off the wall, so it glows with light. The picture merges with its surroundings — as if some optical bridge was being formed between what’s visible and what’s not, the past and the present. Its surface displays a huge painted image of a woman and two young girls cutting up paper, apparently making snow over the landscape. Much of the painting is a massive blast of stark white that becomes a gigantic abstract painting unto itself. Go in close, and you’ll see that the entire painting is inflected with round little fissures where the artist interacted with the paint. Mrs. Autumn has the intensity of an illuminated manuscript and the power of a Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.

The other place you need to park yourself is in the cattle-chute corridor that contains Velocitas — Firmitudo, a graphite, silver oxide, and damar-resin giant on canvas. This sooty-looking abstract storm utilizes a teeny detail of a Dürer and is as great as its source, and it’s one of the best paintings in the show. As painter Jackie Saccoccio wrote to me, it “has equal amounts of flippant casualness, astute observation, utter devotion to material, and the alchemical stuff that happens in his photos.” Beneath this behemoth (it was originally installed high on the wall, as it is here) lie 14 little abstract paintings. These elemental jewels from the 1980s show Polke the master of accident, control, experimentation, viscosity, resin, varnish, fluorescent paint, and other liquids that metamorphose into incredible textures, unnameable shapes, new biological forms. These little works are the prototypes for tens of thousands of lesser abstract paintings now being cranked out (and sold for vast prices) all over the world.

Which is one reason that every artist needs to see and spend time in this show. Not just to bask in the baffling ecstasies and polymorphous crucible of his art. They need to realize how many young painters now suffer from what I call the Polke Effect, ignorantly or mindlessly repeating his gestures without transforming them into anything remotely original. Perhaps this show will school a few of them, and make them take off their water wings and go into the deep end of art’s ocean, where Polke spent his entire career developing a beautiful, gigantic new Boschian cosmography.



‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010′ at the Museum of Modern Art

'Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald)' (1963) by Polke. (Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

This retrospective of the German artist Sigmar Polke finds profound coherence in what is often termed his eclectic style. Unlike previous Polke surveys it mixes mediums: alongside painting and drawing there’s photography, sound, video, film and collage.Their combination proves key in assessing Polke’s reinvention of painting. From his rasterized halftone dot paintings, to paintings in photographic silver bromide (a light-sensitive chemical that darkens over time) on Bubble Wrap, and even uranium-exposed photographs, Polke effected a tectonic shift in how we think about what a painting can be.

The first two galleries are full of greatest hits from Polke’s Kunstakademie Düsseldorf era in the 1960s: early paintings of ready-made consumer items like chocolate wafers and socks. These, Polke’s “Capitalist Realist” paintings, are influenced by American Pop, but, made in postwar Germany, have an entirely different relationship to consumerism than their confident American counterparts. Paintings made on bedsheets speak to a scarcity of materials as much as an embrace of the comical printed-flannel ready-made. There are also recordings of Polke and friends jamming; in one track, Polke plays saxophone while a TV show about the Third Reich yammers in the background. Politics underpin the work.

Sound from recordings, film and videos plays throughout the show, with music from one gallery bleeding into the next room. Before his death in 2010, Polke hinted to Kathy Halbreich, the exhibition’s curator, that music was integral to his vision for a retrospective, and her installation’s layers of sound are reminiscent of Polke’s layered images on canvas.

‘Moderne Kunst’ (1968) by Polke. (Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

The show’s third gallery is full of false starts: a painting from 1968 has flat purple and white crossing lines, a parody of painterly abstraction complete with a mocking caption: Modern Art. There is previously unseen 1972 footage from German TV showing the greasy-haired, bespectacled artist creeping along the Berlin Wall: he’s pretending to be a particle. I loved his Telepathic Session II (William Blake–Sigmar Polke), in which ropes implying psychic communion connect two gridded boards of “Yeses” and “Nos.” One work sticks a lattice of small potatoes on the face of a painting.

Then comes the mature work. Paintings of mushrooms and psychedelic materials move toward layering media and push how the meaning of an image can alter through repetition. Polke came to think about painting as no longer merely a relationship of surface to support, but a process by which multiple and even accidental meanings can be conjured by stuttering, repeating and misregistering images on a plane.

By the seventh gallery, there’s a return to painting—with Negative Value, a 1982 triptych in iridescent colors, Polke makes paintings that are hard to see: they seem purple when viewed straight on, but green or brown from other angles. Shapes and symbols seem to emerge from the gestural surfaces.Increasingly exotic material experiments follow: paintings made of sooty smoke on glass or rare natural pigments, or which use radioactive materials on colored photographic paper. From the 1980s until 2010, Polke often made paintings with semitranslucent ground such as ridged plastics or Bubble Wrap. They incorporate 19th-century stock images of myths and magicians. The implication: artists are a species of modern magician whose transformation of materials is a kind of alchemy. That a video about one of Polke’s largest and final projects, the cut-crystal geode stained glass windows of Grossmünster Church in Zurich, is crammed in an alcove at the end of the show is indicative of how much couldn’t fit in this retrospective.

'Negative Value II (Mizar)' (1982) by Polke. (© 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

By the end of Polke’s career, as this retrospective makes clear, he had redefined painting from a surface onto which a concrete image is set down, to a kind of moving, changing screen that embraces chance and photography, printmaking and video.Ms. Halbreich suggests that for the postwar painter, visual ambiguity represented a resistance to the ghosts of Germany’s wartime political narratives and the authority that accompanied them.

Polke’s paintings created a new terrain. Martin Kippenberger, Jutta Koether, Michel Majerus, Ken Okiishi, Laura Owens, and R.H. Quaytman number among those who set up painting practices there. In Polke’s chemistry and bubbles and ridged screens, we see the Internet with its endless depths of images welling up. What’s more, his paintings are not cynical; they re-enchant the world of images and the possibilities of picture-making.

(Through Aug. 3, 2014)


Ironic Alchemist
On the Death of Sigmar Polke

Deutsche Bank – ArtMag 60

An artist in psychedelic wonderland—somewhere between sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, hippie culture, and political activism. The three-part retrospective the Hamburger Kunsthalle presented in 2009/2010 revealed a side of Sigmar Polke that many did not yet know. Yet his works of the ’70s acted as a kind of bridge between the “Capitalist Realism” of the ’60s and his color experiments of the ’80s. The title of the show, Wir Kleinbürger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen (We petty bourgeois! Contemporaries), voted exhibition of the year by the Association of Art Critics, was the last major exhibition to take place during Polke’s lifetime. In spite of his grave illness, he worked intensively on the show. Now, after a long battle with cancer, Sigmar Polke has died in Cologne at the age of 69.Gerhard Richter and Polke were considered to be the two most important German contemporary painters. In 1963, during their time at the Dusseldorf art academy, they called “Capitalist Realism” into being. Both had fled from the GDR, both had reacted in their work to the Socialist Realism propagated there, but also to Informel, the West’s abstract answer to the artistic doctrine of the East. They developed a quintessentially German version of American Pop Art and used it to poke fun at the stuffiness of the Adenauer years. Instead of Brillo boxes, Polke adapted motifs from German housekeeping magazines, and instead of working with silkscreen, he painted his screened images by hand, dot by dot. From the very beginning, quotations in motif and style played a key role in his work. He reworked media imagery, illustrations, and comics, portraying the post-war German “economic wonder” aesthetic with its flamingos, leopard skin patterns, and palm trees on cheap fabrics; he provided subversive commentary on bourgeois desires.Higher Beings Command: Paint the top right corner black! was the title of probably his most famous painting made in 1963. The motif is exactly what the name calls for: a minimalist white canvas, with the title carefully noted below and the upper right corner dutifully painted in black. The painting is an ironic commentary on the myth of the artist genius who creates masterpieces on the power of inspiration alone. Humor and irony characterized his work from the start, for instance in the work Optimierung, a silkscreen edition he made for the Deutsche Bank Collection in which a snake plant sits on a windowsill. Behind the “Mother-in-law’s Tongue” is a pattern reminiscent of number columns; in the upper left corner is the word “Optimierung” (optimization). The leisure motif that Polke inserted into his composition like a talk bubble—visitors to a swimming pool posing together cheerfully for a group photo—suggests that employees might have other things on their minds than working more productively. Optimierung reads as a satire on the world of offices, numbers, and banks.Polke’s works were acquired early for the Deutsche Bank Collection. In Tower A of the bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt, the entire 21st floor was dedicated to him, while his paper works have been shown in numerous exhibitions such as From a German Perspective, Man in the Middle, Blind Date, and Drawing a Tension. Many works by Polke count among the portfolio of 600 important pieces from the Deutsche Bank Collection that will be given over to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt when it opens its annex in early 2011. In 1994 he was elected Artist of the Fiscal Year—his works from the collection were printed in the annual report and were shown in a traveling exhibition in numerous bank branches.What characterized Polke’s work throughout his career was his ongoing love of experimentation. While he initially explored the effects of a variety of different combinations of motifs, during the 1980s he worked with lead solutions, silver nitrate, shellac, micaceous iron oxide, and mutable thermo and hydro paints. The so-called material paintings brought him the reputation of an alchemist. At the 1986 Venice Biennale, he showed heat-sensitive works in the German Pavilion that shined in colors that varied according to the temperature; he was awarded the “Golden Lion” for the best artistic achievement.Polke’s wit and stylistic pluralism, his implementation of the art historical canon and the media have left a deep mark on an entire generation of artists. He began teaching at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg in 1975. Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner, Georg Herold, and Martin Kippenberger didn’t spend time with him at the school, however, but in bars like Vienna and Gans. In the age of Punk and New Wave, Polke’s ironic wit, his refusal to be pigeonholed, and not least his painting titles—such as Original und Fälschung 21 (Original and Forgery), Frau im Spiegel (Woman in a Mirror), Wer hat noch nicht, wer will noch mal (Who doesn’t have any yet, who wants more)—seem absolutely contemporary.Polke completed his last public project in 2009 for the Grossmünster in Zurich: seven church windows were made of sections of agate and five others were fashioned from glass to represent Old Testament figures. Polke remained true to himself: the “abstract” agate windows recall traditions of late antiquity, although the stone was refined through chemical and “alchemical” processes that lent it an even more intense coloration. For the glass windows, Polke digitally altered motifs from Romanesque manuscript painting and photographs. The project brought an aspect of Polke’s life full circle—before Polke began studying at the Dusseldorf Academy, he had done an apprenticeship with a glass painter.



The Significance of Sigmar Polke

The very idea of art’s exaltedness led ambitious artists to aspire to a public importance, at some odds with their actual position, as producers for the luxury trade. Piet Mondrian, for instance, believed despite his obscurity that his mode of abstract painting had radical political implications and powers. Fifty years ago, the sheer size of the pictures made by the Abstract Expressionists expressed their sense of the cultural significance of their work. In the present moment, when art is increasingly assimilated to what passes under the name of entertainment, and its status as high-priced commodity is generally acknowledged, it might seem particularly inhospitable to such ambitions. But not only does art continue to be an area in which practitioners can achieve some sense of freedom from the normal indignities of wage labor, it can still lend itself to the making of large-scale political statements. Paradoxically, in fact, the very celebrity of certain artists— including their commercial success and the status of their works as prime investments— has created opportunities for them to engage critically with contemporary society.

Gerhard Richter’s work is probably the best known example of this phenomenon. His fellow painter of East German origin, Sigmar Polke shares with Richter an antagonism towards the social system that has richly rewarded them, along with a capacity for production so vast that it seems almost compulsive. Both are determinedly anti-ideological: social criticism for them takes the form not of illustration or expression of views formulated in some specifically political context, but in the exploration of their position as artists, and as painters specifically, within the social order. Hence, importantly, both are concerned with the relation of their archaic profession to more modern methods of image production, in particular photography and printing. The artist is a maker of images; he or she meets the social world today in the context of the flood of pictures, still and moving, that not only represent but help to constitute social reality.

Polke’s current exhibition in the Dallas Museum of Art takes on the issue of the relation between images and reality on a breathtaking scale. Among the nearly 50 paintings and drawings included, made during the last four years, is a set of very large pictures, going well beyond the easel picture, evoking the great wall paintings of earlier times. But the scale of this exhibition is not just a matter of the size of individual paintings: they are interrelated thematically (and pictorially) to a degree that transforms the central hall and four rooms of the museum given over to them into a building-sized pictorial ensemble.

According to the museum’s press release, Polke, acclaimed for “satirizing contemporary life’s pretensions,” here “investigates ideas of perception and vision.” That something less anodyne than this is at work is suggested by the gigantic picture on the wall that leads to the main exhibition space: a printed enlargement of a photograph of the National Historic Monument at Little Big Horn, in which visitors stand at the edges of what seems as much a cemetery as a monument. Turning the corner brings into view a piece of equal size, “The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda” (2002) measuring 275 5/8″ × 196 7/8″, which reproduces another found image. In this case, it is a newspaper diagram of the use of a camera-bearing Predator drone to identify possible enemies in the mountains of Afghanistan. Within seconds, this visual information, passed through American army intelligence stations, can result in the firing of a missile at the turbaned horseman shown far below on a mountain road. The courage involved in juxtaposing these two images— one seemingly in tune with liberal sympathies, the other raising more difficult questions about the American response to 9/11—should not go unmentioned. Whose perception, whose vision is at their subject?

Little Big Horn is seen from a distance, that of time; the massacre is represented by a monument. The dead Indian has become a good one. The newspaper diagram, picturing the present, works with space: it apes the drone with a view from above. The reach of the U.S. Army is global thanks to the transmission of images for analysis and decision. Furthermore, the army wants not only to see but to be seen: it wants a global image— not just the literal image in the newspaper— but the “credibility” that the U.S. might attack other countries in order to safeguard itself.

Polke has always been suspicious of the view from above. In 1969 he made a painting mocking Modernist progressivism, “Higher Powers Demand: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black!” Modernism claimed universality of pictorial language, fit to point the way to humanity’s necessary future. But actually this art had a specific socio-historical location, in the West, where art took on its present form as a part of the society that then spread across the world. The West that created modern art also destroyed cultures and peoples, like those of the Americas. It produced global wars and the methodical destruction of millions, and continues to threaten the natural world with ecological disaster. As Walter Benjamin observed, “Every monument of civilization is a monument of barbarism.” One doesn’t have to sympathize with Al Qaeda to remember the civilians killed by American attacks in Afghanistan, damage collateral to the view from above. Little Big Horn symbolizes how the West was won.

We are left today in the middle of modernity, with its resources as well as its terrors. With painting, for instance, with an insistence on the particular alongside ideological generalities. While Benjamin believed that the special virtue of photographic printing was that it brought things closer to people, it is one of Polke’s insights that the mechanical reproduction of images, while making them transmissible, in principle across the globe, can also distance us from the things they represent. He also shows that this distance can be overcome, if we make the effort to approach closely. Photomechanical imagery, enlarged by actual or figurative approach, turns into a field of dots in which the original image vanishes. A close look also reveals the errors— splotches of ink, broken or smeared dots, etc.— inevitably produced by the accidents of the printing process. The Dallas exhibition includes a number of fine examples of Polke’s paintings of printing errors. He makes it clear that the error is no intruder into the printed order, but a product of it. What, from the viewpoint of the authorities— those who have chosen pictures to be printed in newspapers, for instance— represent mistakes, disruptions, to Polke represent eruptions of individuality and opportunities for exhilaration as well as anxiety.

They bear a potential realized by Polke in a particularly pure form in a triptych of paintings, “Tryptich” (2002) each measuring 157 1/2″ × 118″, hung at the far end of the main exhibition hall, made with artificial resin on polyester (through which the stretchers and so the distance to the wall on which they are hung can be seen). They shimmer and glow with gold, yellow, and green under black loops and lines marking the surface of the support and thus completing the inventory of the materials of painting. The gestural marks seem to lie on top of swathes of dot grids recalling the rasters of printed imagery. Simple in their imagelessness, complex in their shifting colors and densities, these pictures are apparitions of the human ability to form new realities, beyond the reproduction of the existent— restatements of the old promise of abstract painting, in direct conflict with the dominant image culture of our time.

Polke responded to the invitation to make works for a Texas museum by using as source material items from local newspapers. The common element in all of them is the gun: a display of rifles for sale at a gun show, a young woman with her pistol at a firing range, an ad for Remington shotgun loads, and so forth. But there is no easy antithesis of humanism and violence. “Splatter Analysis” (2002) is based on a photograph of a shooter inspecting a target, noting the spread of shotgun pellets. The joke is double-barreled: the shot pattern recalls the reproductive raster, while the title also suggests a laugh at the expense of Abstract Expressionism (not forgetting, in this context, Jackson Pollock’s self-presentation as a tough guy from the West)— a joke that bears on Polke himself, whose work characteristically pursues serious intentions by way of chance effects.

A more than lifesize painting of two grotesque gun-toting cowboys (“Do the World a Favor and Eat a Bullet,” 2002) turns into its opposite when we walk past it into the gun-picture room to see the whole image from which they have been abstracted. Far from the shot-up desperadoes they seem, they are paper targets for an out-of-shape shooter— made out of the black-on-white dots of a newspaper photograph copied in paint on a 118 1/8″ × 197 7/8″ piece of translucent fabric— at a shooting gallery with the slogan “The Fastest Gun in the West.” The slogan states the idea at the root of the Predator hunting Afghans; but with the shooter down on the ground, not sitting at an intelligence command post controlling destruction at a distance, the idiocy of his potshots at enemies of his own construction is apparent. This dialectic of strength and weakness is another theme running through the exhibition. A picture at once disturbing and funny shows a grown-up man sitting on a sofa, reduced to childlike powerlessness by the presence of two housewives who tower above him. Man gets his revenge on woman, however, in a picture on an adjoining wall showing what seem to be beer-drinking soldiers in a Texas-themed bar, perhaps in Germany, amusing themselves with a half-naked woman crawling on their table (“Me and My Buddies Would Vote for You,” 2002).

Polke himself is, of course, male as well as Western. His way with painting is in the heroic tradition of Western art: large in scale and subject matter, taking on the grandest themes of the day in a voice insistently his own. But he’s also willing to cede control to his materials, letting colors swirl and mix on the surfaces (front and back) of his transparent polyester or commercially-printed fabric supports. He seems to recognize the weakness of his art in the face of the gigantic apparatus of commercial and political image-production operating around us, without for a moment ceasing both to mock that apparatus and to offer alternatives, celebrating anomalies, striving to be himself an anomaly through and through. Within the private collection and the museum, the places set aside for art within the modern division of cultural labor, he does his best to render visible what he can of the social totality, with its elements of terror and beauty, a range of experience that perhaps only a wild sense of humor like Polke’s can make bearable. The result is an exhibition so rich in visual interest, intelligence, anarchic spirit, and painterly exhilaration that it makes the abandonment of exaltation, of the wish to see and portray (and control) the world from above, seem a great triumph of the human spirit.



Aug. 27, 2011

Sigmar Polke

New York,

at Leo Koenig


Photography meant many things to Sigmar Polke. At two important junctures of his career, he turned to it as a model for refashioning painting: his early “raster” pictures were entropic enlargements of half-tone photojournalistic images; later, darkroom experiments influenced his wondrous excursions into alchemical abstraction. But photography didn’t always lead into painting. In 1966-68, during his most conceptual period, Polke used a Rollei box camera to capture ephemeral arrangements of objects in his home and studio. With a more portable Leica or Nikon he photographed scenes from his 1970s travels through Central Asia and briefer trips to Paris, New York, São Paulo and other cities, later subjecting the negatives and prints to a barrage of technical “mistakes.” Regularly shooting images of his own exhibitions, he also turned his camera on everything from tiny gold nuggets to a Goya canvas hanging in a French museum. Last but not least, the photocopy machine was an indispensible part of Polke’s studio practice for several decades.

“Sigmar Polke: Photoworks 1964-2000,” the first New York show of Polke since the artist’s death last year, offered a generous sampling of his photographs. The mid-1960s conceptual works were well represented with prints (some vintage, some not) of his zany setups, sometimes involving visual puns (like crumpled paper poured from a teapot). Polke, who encountered Fluxus at the very start of his career, relished the slapstick side of Conceptual art, as epitomized by “Higher Beings Commanded,” a 1968 edition of lithographs he made with Christof Kohlhöfer.

Perhaps the most surprising images, unfamiliar even to many longtime Polke fans, were five large photos taken in 1976 in Palermo’s catacombs. Polke was no stranger to the macabre, but these shots of skeletons decked out in moth-eaten suits are his most direct treatment of death, with a wicked eye for the grotesque thatevokes George Grosz. If the Palermo prints-cloudy, creased and otherwise mistreated in typical Polke fashion-dwell on mortality in all its gross particulars, a set of 1972 images shot at Gaspelhof (the artists’ commune where Polke lived in the early 1970s) are exuberant celebrations of sensual life. Vignettes of sun-drenched nudity and trippy close-ups of young women suggest a bucolic existence. Overexposures and seepage of light into negatives underline the carefree qualities of the images.

Another unexpected treat was a set of 64 photographs chronicling the installation and opening of an exhibition Polke created with the artist Achim Duchow at the Kassel Kunstverein in 1977. Hung in a cinematic frieze, the roughly 8-by-12-inch prints-often skewed, solarized or blurry, but always full of fascinating detail-permit us to experience the anarchic installation as Polke saw it. We can only imagine what revelations await us when the many films Polke shot, but almost never exhibited, finally emerge into public view.


Photo: Sigmar Polke: Untitled (Palermo), 1976, gelatin silver print, 291⁄2 by 325⁄8 inches; at Leo Koenig.



Sigmar Polke, Whose Sly Works Shaped Contemporary Painting, Dies at 69


Sigmar Polke, an artist of infinite, often ravishing pictorial jest, whose sarcastic and vibrant layering of found images and maverick painting processes left an indelible mark on the last four decades of contemporary painting, died Thursday in Cologne, Germany. He was 69.
Alessandro Della Bella/KEYSTONE, via European Pressphoto Agency

Sigmar Polke, an early and astute adopter of American Pop Art, posing in front of one of his works in Switzerland in 2005. More Photos »

The Art of Sigmar Polke

The cause was complications from cancer, said Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at the Michael Werner Gallery New York which, along with Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne, has been Mr. Polke’s chief representative for nearly 20 years.

Mr. Polke (pronounced POLL-ka) was nearly as influential as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, the postwar titans who made his own work possible. And ultimately his influence could even exceed theirs through its sheer diversity, stylistic promiscuity and joyful, ruthless exploitation and expansion of the ways and means of several mediums.

He made prints and sculpture and in his youth, and dabbled memorably in Conceptual and installation art, with potatoes being a favored material. His peregrinations in and around the mediums of drawing and photography were extensive, meriting enormous retrospectives and forming second and third careers.

But his main achievement was to be an early and astute adopter of American Pop Art, belying its crisp, consumerist optimism with tawdry materials that added social bite, and with random splashes of paint that implied disorder and the unconscious. His paintings were essentially Conceptual in their skepticism about the very act of painting.

His images rampaged through history, ranging from demure 18th-century prints of an aristocratic astronomer that slyly signaled his interest in optics to images of the watchtowers and barbed-wire fences of Hitler’s concentration camps, stenciled onto banal printed fabric.

The images questioned accepted taste, challenging the viewer to think through how they had been made; their random juxtapositions often seemed to mimic thought itself. In all these ways he opened the door to a freewheeling combination of representation and abstraction that is still playing out.

His first solo exhibition in New York, of paintings made at least a decade earlier, was at the Holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo in 1982, and it jolted the American art scene with news of European painting’s vitality.

Mr. Polke’s antic irreverence was picked up by legions of artists in all mediums on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, the team of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Richard Prince and Lara Schnitger.

Tall, with a commanding presence and caustic wit, Mr. Polke was often fittingly called an alchemist. He had a long face that seemed to call out for a sorcerer’s pointed hat. In photographs, he often appeared to be on the verge of laughter; small, gleaming eyes behind wire-framed glasses and a sharp V of eyebrows added a sardonic if not demonic note.

Indeed, in painting he pursued a form of combustion that was not only visual but also chemical. In the 1960s he experimented with the interaction of fruit and vegetable juices. In the late 1980s he began making paintings by sprinkling silver oxide, powdered arsenic or granulated meteorite over canvases wet with resin. Some changed color over time; others were temporarily altered according to temperature and humidity.

And his large photographic images — many of them based on photos he took during a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-1970s — often seem to have emerged from a mismanaged laboratory experiment.

For much of his life Mr. Polke made extensive use of recreational drugs. Mushrooms were a frequent motif in his paintings and photographs. Unpredictable behavior was his norm, elusiveness his everyday mode, and provocative answers a matter of course.

He could be completely genial to people not in the art world, but he could also be an art dealer’s nightmare, especially in the early years of his career, when he handpicked the buyers of his works and set high, arbitrary prices.

In an essay in the catalog for Mr. Polke’s 1990 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the German collector Rainer Speck described buying a Polke in 1981 for a very high price that he suspected the artist had set by “doubling his age and adding three noughts.” Mr. Polke turned 40 that year.

When one dealer asked Mr. Polke about an exhibition they had discussed years earlier, he agreed to it on the condition that the dealer promise it would be the gallery’s last. Basically he behaved as if every aspect, ritual and protocol of art and the art world was available for manipulation.

Sigmar Polke was born Feb. 13, 1941, in Oels, in the Silesian region of eastern Germany in what is now western Poland. His family, with five or six children, fled west to Tubingen in 1945 as the Russian Army advanced but still wound up in East Germany as World War II ended. In 1953 they moved to East Berlin and crossed over to West Berlin on the subway. The young Mr. Polke pretended to be asleep to contribute to the air of normality.

The Polkes later settled near Düsseldorf, and Mr. Polke lived there or in nearby Cologne for the rest of his life. He married and divorced twice and is survived by the children of his first marriage, Anna Polke and Georg Polke.

Düsseldorf provided an excellent environment for a budding artist; it was the site of the first postwar exhibition of Dada in 1958. By 1960, its commercial galleries had held solo shows of Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly and it became a meeting place for Fluxus artists like Nam June Paik and George Maciunas starting in 1962.

In 1959 and 1960, Mr. Polke completed a glass-painting apprenticeship, an experience that contributed to his lifelong attraction to transparency. Later, many of his paintings would be on plastic — whether thick or thin, ridged or smooth — which contributed to the eerie clarity of their layering and made them seem two-sided, even when hanging on the wall.

In 1961 he enrolled in the Düsseldorf Art Academy, which was in its most experimental phase at the time. Joseph Beuys was teaching and promulgating art as a social activity, and Dieter Roth and Günther Uecker were professors. Mr. Polke’s fellow students included Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg, and in 1963 the three founded a painting movement they called Capitalist Realism. Their first show was in a storefront in Düsseldorf in 1963. Mr. Lueg would later change his name and become the Düsseldorf art dealer Konrad Fischer and would give Mr. Polke two exhibitions.

Mr. Polke’s paintings from this period depicted things like men’s socks, plastic tubs and candy bars in the uninflected style of commercial art. Soon he adapted Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots, but typically in a rougher, more mechanical version that suggested several trips through a photocopier. He had his first solo show at the Galerie René Block in West Berlin in 1966. In 1970 he had his first show with Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne.

Throughout the 1970s, German painting remained a kind of underground activity, with Beuys and German Conceptual artists like Hanne Darboven getting more international attention.

But in the 1980s Mr. Polke, along with painters like Mr. Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff, signaled a resurgence of painting that was heard around the art world. The experience bred into Mr. Polke a preference for the margins over the mainstream and a relatively modest lifestyle despite his success. He worked without an assistant and lived in Cologne in a warehouse surrounded by his books and his paintings.


NY Culture

Sigmar Polke: The Father of Reinvention

Artist’s versatility and many modes of expression are spotlighted in show at the Museum of Modern Art

April 18, 2014 6:45 p.m. ET

Part of the MoMA exhibition for Sigmar Polke’s ‘Alibis’ European Pressphoto Agency

The late German artist Sigmar Polke made magic of the material world.

“Who has made a painting on Bubble Wrap?” asked Kathy Halbreich, associate director of the Museum of Modern Art and curator of the new exhibition “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010.” “And who has made a painting on Bubble Wrap that deals with the iconography of hunting, the line between East and West, and the surroundings of the concentration camps?”

The ever-resourceful Polke is the answer, and the subject of one of the biggest exhibitions yet in MoMA’s 94-year history. Spread across four galleries on the museum’s second floor, with more than 250 works, the show, opening Saturday, pays tribute to an artist defined by a sense of what Ms. Halbreich called “aggressive, promiscuous invention.”

He “helped me understand actually what it meant to be an artist,” she said, “which was to be ferocious, dissatisfied, skeptical, willful, to know no bounds.”

Though most distinguished as a painter, Polke worked in numerous media, including film, video, photography, drawing and sculpture. His images often make use of unconventional materials, including meteorite dust, uranium, graphite and soot from smoke affixed to glass.

“The moment you think you understand him,” MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, said, “he slips away.”

That made allotting sufficient space a priority. In terms of square footage, the only points of comparison in MoMA’s exhibition history are shows devoted to Willem de Kooning in 2011 and Richard Serra in 2007. For Polke, who approved the early conception of the show before his death in 2010 at the age of 69, the museum is making comparable space for an artist with less widespread recognition but a healthy reputation in the art world.

“Why aren’t his paintings as expensive as Gerhard Richter ?” asked Gordon VeneKlasen, managing partner at Michael Werner Gallery, home on the Upper East Side to a concurrent show of early Polke drawings. “If you ask anyone across the museum or artistic or collecting community, he’s equally known to anybody. He’s the equal of any great artist of the 20th century. It’s just the general public, and I think that will change with the MoMA show.”

‘Untitled (Rorschach) (Ohne Titel (Rorschach))’ c. 1999 Alistair Overbruck/Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society/VG Bild-Kunst

The painter Carroll Dunham has maintained an interest in Polke’s work since first encountering it in the ’80s. “Polke is a very diverse artist, so it’s possible to look at his work through a lot of different filters,” he said. “It’s organized and disorganized at the same time.”

The MoMA show stands to send a charge through artists who see it, too.

“In some ways it’s not unlike the recent Mike Kelley exhibition at PS1,” Mr. Dunham said. “It gives one’s confidence in the whole artistic endeavor a boost.” (Mr. Dunham will participate in a panel discussion on Polke’s work, “Who Cares If It’s Painting?” at MoMA on May 1.)

Polke’s versatility and knack for reinvention grew out of a search, shared among a generation of German artists who came of age after World War II, to process what happened and to progress into a new world beyond.

“His roots are deeply embedded in poisonous soil,” Ms. Halbreich said. “I think the skepticism we see in his work comes out of the fact that Sigmar knew that authority isn’t truth, and that truth can be deeply manipulated. He had an ability that very few artists have: to continue to search.”

That led him to explore different modes of expression, and by different means that have become common currency in contemporary art. After decades of painting, drawing, sculpting, filming, and creating totems and provocations by any means available, Polke amassed a body of work ready to be re-evaluated.

“The world is so open to see things in so many different ways that it’s interesting to have somebody who is a real source, to go back to an essential figure who has inspired so many things that have come after,” said Mr. VeneKlasen, a close collaborator with Polke who developed his gallery show to add to the occasion at MoMA. “I think it will be exciting for people to look back and say, ‘Oh my God, he’s the one who invented all of this.’ “

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