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.