We expect, and have expected for a long time, that artists will explain themselves, that they will lead us through the layered meanings of their work with patience and clarity, telling us in detail about their materials and processes, sharing with complete candor their intentions and weaknesses. It is as if their works never go out into the world without the company of their voices, which come to us via interviews, artist statements, video documentaries, panel discussions and artist talks. It’s hard to say exactly when this mania for explanation became so pervasive. Perhaps with the first generation of university-trained artists in the 1960s, perhaps with the advent of theory in influential MFA programs in the 1970s. Of course there have always been articulate, even voluble artists—think, for example, of Philip Guston, Adrian Piper or Mike Kelley—but the notion that a work of contemporary art should be completely legible and that it is part of the artist’s job description to read it for us has never been so prevalent as in recent years. One need simply look at an episode of “Art21,” a widely viewed TV series on contemporary art, where the only voices we hear are those of the artists.
What do we do, then, with an artist who declines to explain his or her work? It would be hard to find an artist in recent times who was less forthcoming than Sigmar Polke (1941-2010). He almost never gave interviews, and on the rare occasions when he did so, his responses either mocked or otherwise frustrated the interviewer’s quest for information. Similarly, he wrote very few artist statements, and his longest text (“Early Influences, Late Consequences, or: How Did the Monkeys Get into My Work and Other Icono-Biographical Questions”) was actually ghostwritten by a friend and took the form of a parody of an art-historical study. (It was originally published in 1976, in the catalogue of Polke’s first museum survey.) The relative lack of guidance from the artist has meant that viewers and those who write about Polke’s work must take risks, makes guesses, puzzle things out for themselves. Perhaps no one has risen to this challenge better than poet Mary Jo Bang, whose 2004 collection The Eye Like a Strange Balloon includes 17 poems about works by Polke. Yet at the same time that Polke generally declined to furnish explanations, he never tried to control interpretations of his work, to impose an official reading. He seemed to be telling us: Surely you are smart enough to figure this out for yourselves!
In the four years since Polke’s death his career has come under renewed scrutiny. His activities in the 1970s have been extensively examined in Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois!, a 512-page volume based on a 2009-10 exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. The 314-page bilingual catalogue for “Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism,” a group show that originated at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and travels this month to Artists Space in New York, provides analysis and documentation of Polke’s early years. Lastly, the catalogue of the current retrospective, “Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010,” mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London, includes numerous scholarly essays by art historians and curators along with illuminating appreciations by artists. It seems that once the artist was no longer around to refuse to answer questions or guard his privacy, his audience was granted permission to dig into his history, to turn over every rock, or, to use an especially Polkian metaphor, to go hunting for the mushroom that will provide magical revelations.
“Living with Pop” examines the history of Capitalist Realism, a short-lived movement (1963-66) that launched the careers of its four members: Polke, Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg and Manfred Kuttner. (After an impressive start, Lueg gave up painting and became an influential art dealer under the name Konrad Fischer; Kuttner, who painted optical abstractions, also turned away from art-making.) The most unusual thing about the exhibition is that it contains no actual artworks. Instead, the curators have combined extensive documentation with full-scale photographic reproductions of paintings by the four artists. While acknowledging that there would have been enormous practical challenges to borrowing so many valuable paintings for their show, the curators of “Living with Pop” explain their decision largely in theoretical terms. Relying solely on documentation and reproduction makes it possible “to approach the original gesture” of the Capitalist Realist artists “who culled their pictorial world from self-reproduced material.” Further, the exclusion of actual works means the exhibition “can avoid any fetishizing of the objects and return to their original critical use.” 1
“Self-reproduced” material was, indeed, crucial for Polke and Richter, and the original “Living with Pop,” a 1963 exhibition-installation-performance mounted by Richter and Lueg in a Düsseldorf furniture store, was nothing if not critical. The current exhibition underlines the fact that Polke and Richter drew their early inspiration as much from the anarchic, anti-art shenanigans of Fluxus as from the pictorial strategies of American Pop art, a fact easily forgotten in the celebration of Polke and Richter as “great painters.” The Artists Space show also reminds viewers that powerful artists often evolve in tandem, a dynamic that is necessarily sidelined in monographic projects like the MoMA survey. Laid out to evoke the “pedestrian zones” of 1960s Düsseldorf and including some large-scale photos of street scenes, “Living with Pop” (which opened at Artists Space too late for the author of the present article to see it before this issue went to press) acknowledges the impact that this Rhineland city had on Capitalist Realism, including the carnivalesque aspects of Düsseldorf street culture, which were especially important for Polke. In the catalogue, Walter Grasskamp, a longtime observer of the German art scene, remarks that Polke “could have earned his keep as decorator of funfair booths and garish dives, so accurate a rendition of the cheap lacquer vernacular of their dream images were his flamingos and palm trees.” 2
CROSS-CHECKING THE Polkes reproduced in the “Living with Pop” show and the actual works in “Alibis” reveals that MoMA has done a good job rounding up important early paintings. For anyone familiar with Polke’s career, one of the most exciting things about the MoMA show is the opportunity it affords to see legendary but rarely exhibited works, and also to register countless effects of scale and surface that are lost in reproduction. It is interesting, for instance, to see how much the black dispersion paint in “raster” paintings like Family 1 (1964) and Female Head (1966) resemble printer’s ink. By contrast, the thicker kind of dispersion paint that Polke applied to patterned flannel in Heron Painting II (1968) sits on the surface like so much extruded plastic. Heron Painting II was painted during one of Polke’s miracle years. Having finished his studies at the Düsseldorf Art Academy the year before, the 27-year-old Polke created some of his most influential works in 1968, famously a “year of the barricades” that the young artist seems to have spent largely in his studio. Bristling with parody and satire, these works, which are well-represented in “Alibis,” include Constructivist (where early 20th-century abstraction meets the Nazi swastika), Hand Lines (an abstract diptych copied from the artist’s creased palm), Heron Painting I and Heron Painting II (kitsch motifs on printed fabric) and what is arguably Polke’s most famous painting, Modern Art, a casual pastiche of modernist abstraction painted to evoke a museum poster or postcard. In a stimulating essay in the MoMA catalogue, Tate curator Mark Godfrey, paying particular attention to the artist’s sketchbooks, argues that Polke’s attitude toward abstraction in the late 1960s involved affection as well as parody. 3 One might add that Polke’s attitude toward mystical revelation, which he famously lampooned in his painting Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! (1969), was equally nuanced.
Polke seemed ready to try anything in 1968, including a kind of all-text painting that he had never done before and never returned to. The work in question, The Large Cloth of Abuse, known in earlier English translations of the German title Das grosse Schimpftuch as The Great Bitching Sheet, consists of several flannel sheets stitched together to form a roughly 13-by-14-foot piece of unstretched fabric. Onto this, using dripping black tarlike paint, Polke wrote out dozens of German swear words, running them together to create a litany of insults. When he included this work in his 1976 survey, which debuted at the Tübingen Kunsthalle before traveling to other German cities, he brought it into the museum at the last moment. Before the painting was hung (or, rather, simply nailed to the wall), he had himself photographed wearing it like an enormous cape. Then, shortly after the work was installed, he had the cloth turned to the wall so that visitors had to lift up a corner of the huge sheet in order to read the words, fragments of which seeped through from the other side. One’s first thought—that he hid the words to avoid offending the public—is contradicted by the fact that he selected this painting for the endpapers in the exhibition catalogue, the most substantial publication on his work to date.
As a language-based attack on aesthetic proprieties, The Large Cloth of Abuse perfectly complements Austrian writer Peter Handke’s notorious 1966 play Offending the Audience, in which the actors subject the audience to a relentless deconstruction of theatrical conventions and a mounting litany of insults; given its size and suppleness, the painting might even plausibly have served as a theater curtain for a production of Handke’s anti-play. The curator of the Tübingen show, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, who shares his views on Polke in a recent interview in the MoMA catalogue, says he “always thought that this [The Large Cloth of Abuse] was a travesty of the artist as seer and the artist as leader, of Beuys wrapping himself in all kinds of things. Polke takes a painting, which isn’t a painting, and then debases the object, turning it into a sheet that you wrap around yourself to keep warm.” 4
For many years Polke’s 1970s work was rarely shown or written about, which contributed to the perception that he stopped painting in the 1970s, in favor of making photographs and films and restlessly traveling. Even at the time, observers were trying to ignore the 1970s work in favor of that of the 1960s, done when he was more visible on the German art scene, before he disappeared, so they thought, into a haze of psychedelic experiments, communal living and messy collaborations. The most striking sign of this attitude came with the 1976 survey: in making his selection for the exhibition Buchloh included no work after 1971, in effect excluding half of the artist’s career. The generous representation of 1970s work at MoMA testifies to a continuing reassessment of this period of the artist’s life. Although most of it comes in the form of photographs and films, there are a number of paintings, including Alice in Wonderland and Mao, both from 1972, and, from later in the decade, Supermarkets (1976) and Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978. Centered on an image copied from a 1955 edition of MAD magazine, Supermarkets is one of 10 large paintings on paper that Polke made at the urging of his Swiss dealer Toni Gerber, who planned to sell them to a consortium of collectors. At MoMA, it hangs in a gallery intentionally overloaded with work in order to, as a wall text explains, “evoke the stimulation of all the senses that occurs during a hallucination.” Some of this stimulation comes in the form of three 16mm films simultaneously projected on different walls, their musical soundtracks bleeding into each other (resulting, at one point, in a mash-up of Herbie Hancock and Captain Beefheart). One film, Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan (ca. 1974-76), presents footage of some cruel bear-baiting and blurry pans of watching crowds. Showing how Polke’s visual impulses traversed the boundaries of different mediums, the crowd motif turns up in two nearby paintings on political themes, Mao and, in spray paint on newsprint, Against the Two Superpowers-For a Red Switzerland (1976).
It is in the 1970s, partly through his discovery of Francis Picabia’s “Transparencies” and, perhaps more importantly, through his experiments with photography and film (and, no doubt, thanks to his affection for psychedelic drugs) that Polke developed his practice of overlaying multiple images. An early example of this, and one that involves a kind of self-iconoclasm, is Dr. Berlin (1969-74), a painting in which irregular arrays of dots and a disassembled cartoony face sporting a big pair of red, spray-painted lips are superimposed over a neat composition of geometric lines and carefully aligned dot grids. What Polke had in fact done was to paint on top of one of his own 1968 canvases (a companion to Constructivist) in his gonzo cartoony style of the mid-1970s. This overpainting anticipates Polke’s great multilayered paintings of the early 1980s, such as This Is How You Sit Correctly (after Goya), an important 1982 piece that was not in the show, and The Living Stink and the Dead Are Not Present (1983), with its corrosive Pop. In paintings like these Polke seems to be imitating lap dissolves in movies, those barely perceptible moments when one shot fades into another. The closest parallel may be Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema (made from the late 1980s through 1998), a slow-edit epic video meditation on film history that uses eccentric and deliriously beautiful lap dissolves (often from a still shot to a painting) to radically reshuffle history.
ANOTHER SPECTACULAR YEAR for Polke was 1982-83. After extensive travels around the globe in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 41-year-old artist, now living in Cologne, gave himself wholeheartedly to painting, simultaneously working abstractly and with recognizable imagery, a duality he would sustain until the end of his life. It was at this time that history, as opposed to contemporary popular culture, became central to his art. It’s true that in the 1960s Polke had alluded to the Nazi period in a number of drawings, but now he addressed the darker chapters of German history with great pictorial power in two memorable paintings, Paganini (1981-83), which is in the MoMA show, and Camp (1982), which, sadly, isn’t. Surrounding the famed violin virtuoso with metastasizing swastikas, Paganini, a dramatically wide painting on printed fabric, echoes novels by Klaus Mann (Mephisto, 1936) and Thomas Mann (Doktor Faustus, 1947) in its linkage of Nazism to the spectacle of an artist prepared to make a Faustian pact with the devil. In Camp, rows of perimeter lights and tall barbed-wire fencing seem to emerge from a roiling cloud of black smoke, created when Polke burned part of the painting (most likely with a compressed-gas flame), leaving layers of soot and charred fabric. Powerful though it is, however, Camp is uncharacteristically direct in its visceral evocation of the Holocaust, compared to the complex mise-en-scène of Paganini or the multilayered, pictorially tangled “Watchtower” series of the mid-1980s. The year 1982 also gave birth to the “Negative Value” series, large, mysteriously murky compositions of dense violet and brown that signaled Polke’s growing fascination with the chemical properties of pigments.
While impressively expansive and deep in its tracking of Polke’s career, “Alibis” gives relatively little space to the last two decades of the artist’s life. There are about a dozen works from 1990-99 (including the grand Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters) and only 11 from 2000-10, mostly in two small low-ceilinged galleries at the end of the show. By contrast there are some 50 works from 1980-89. Although the reluctance of lenders and the great size of some of Polke’s late works may have played a role here (room was found in MoMA’s big-box atrium for Season’s Hottest Trend, a 2003 fabric painting that measures over 9 by 16 feet, and the topical but not visually compelling 21-by-16-foot The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, 2002), the implication is that his later work is of lesser importance. Polke’s final major achievement—the windows he designed for the Grossmünster Cathedral in Zurich—is acknowledged in a film. In a vitrine nearby sits one of his very last works, a small notebook whose pages have been completely filled with dark veils of black ink. Presumably made as he battled cancer, it’s a heartbreaking object, a final somber note to career of symphonic breadth.
The deemphasizing of the post-1990 work is especially surprising since the only previous U.S. Polke survey occurred at the beginning of the 1990s. It would have been great to see once again Polke’s “Magic Lantern” series from 1992—iconographically dense paintings designed to be looked at from both sides—and some of the resin-soaked paintings that were in “Polke-Bernstein-Amber,” a fascinating 2006 show at Michael Werner Gallery in New York that paired several of Polke’s “Amber Paintings” with exquisite Renaissance and Baroque-era decorative amber artifacts. (The range and depth of Polke’s art-historical references reveal his antiquarian side; his later work throngs with details from old master prints.) There’s no doubt that it was in the 1980s that Polke’s international influence was at its zenith, so maybe it’s right for that decade to be given so much space. Does this mean that Polke no longer exerts powerful influence on younger artists? It’s more likely that his work is now such an integral part of the DNA of contemporary art we can no longer isolate its influence.4
Throughout the recent publications on Polke, art historians and curators can be seen combing through his recorded statements, closely examining his work and exploring his archives in order to bring some degree of certainty to the many questions surrounding his processes and intentions. (Certainty, we should remember, was never much favored by this artist, who once attached quotations about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to a series of large-scale works-the 1969-71 quartet “The Ride on the Eight of Infinity,” one of which is in “Alibis.”) It was perhaps in acknowledgement of Polke’s dislike of being pinned down and his deep anti-authoritarian bent that the editors of the MoMA catalogue solicited contributions from several artists. A very useful and highly personal text by Jutta Koether tracks Polke’s impact on younger German artists. He was, Koether writes, “never the Good Artist, the Paragon, the Reliable Quantity,” but, rather, a “Bad Dad” who “always bore something disconcerting and strange within him that grew stronger over the years.” 5
In her contribution, Tacita Dean speculates on Polke’s creative process: “He intuited which gesture was the right one and acted accordingly. Such knowledge is subcutaneous and should never be brought into the conscious realm but has to stay just beneath its surface. Not many artists can keep it there. Polke relied on such mechanisms as chance and contingency, and I suspect he worked quickly and without pause for unnecessary thought.” 6 If the scholar hopes to one day exhaust the work’s mysteries, the artist knows that the moment of total clarity will never arrive.
Although “Alibis” and the accompanying catalogue overflow with impressive research and interpretation, with all the apparatus of art historical canonization, happily the exhibition doesn’t try to impose any conventional narrative of artistic development, even dispensing with wall labels in favor of a newsprint exhibition guide. For the most part, the show bravely embraces all the brilliance and contradictions and elusiveness that made Polke so “disconcerting and strange.” One leaves the museum having learned much more about Polke, and the experience of his generation of Germans, but the questions that linger far outnumber any solid answers, which, with this artist, is just as it should be.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through Aug. 3; “Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism,” at Artists Space, New York, June 7-Aug. 17.
RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN is a New York-based poet and critic, and professor of critical studies at the University of Houston. See Contributors page.