PRINT September 1988


Sigmar Polke—Zeichnungen 1963–1969

BOUND IN DARK-BLUE LINEN, with a cover drawing stamped in silver (as are the words on the spine), this meticulously printed volume of Sigmar Polke’s early drawings is an imposing proposition. The easily manageable weight of the splendid publication, then, is a real surprise, yet clearly one more reflection of its publisher’s mission. For this volume is no bibliophile artwork in the conventional sense—it is more a labor of love. Publisher Johannes Gachnang clearly decided on the generous size of the book to correspond to the format of drawings superbly reproduced within, yet he also selected a soft, woody paper—of a subtly grained white that is hard to define—that is astonishingly light. In short, the book as medium here assumes the same function as that of the ideal gallery space, one that has been specifically designed to receive and present a particular artwork. I am emphasizing the publisher’s meticulous care not only because such artistry has become a rare virtue, but also because Gachnang has programmatically pursued it in all of of his endeavors. (He has also published a volume of drawings by Markus Lüpertz, Troels Anderson’s catalogue raisonné of Per Kirkeby’s etchings, and Fred Jahn’s two-volume catalogue raisonné of Georg Baselitz’s prints.) Formerly an artist and still a curator of art, Gachnang views his publishing work as the intellectual and spiritual space in which his dialogue with the artists he feels close to can be made public in an appropriate form. And Gachnang’s loving attention to details in the making of these books leads us directly back to the atmosphere of West Germany in the 1960s, which is precisely where he begins his preface to this volume.

In recalling that decade as he experienced it in Berlin, Gachnang gracefully succeeds in situating Polke’s drawings in their meaningful historical and social context. And against this background, Polke’s ’60s drawings prove to be far more significant than has been previously conceded, for they function as a paradigm for an artistic strategy originally developed in Germany, especially around Düsseldorf, but then taken up fruitfully by the most diverse artists. This strategy might be dubbed “stance production.” Its basic credo is that paintings do not issue from esthetic categories, but, rather, from a committed stance on the artist’s part, and from the ideas that develop in the light of that stance. Polke’s approach is, above all, pragmatic. Initially, he seems to be reacting with humor to the world around him. On closer inspection, we find this humor to be, in fact, a sarcastic undermining of the world as reflected in these drawings, an unmasking of the facade of beckoning blissful prosperity in order to reveal the bleak shabbiness beneath.

Humor, then, bursts into madness, reaching a higher level of so-called common sense. The philosophical and political slogans of the ’60s enter into a bizarre symbiosis with consumer products. The spare, childlike rendering of three string-tied boxes constitutes Polke’s tongue-in-cheek appeal for patronizing development aid to “our brothers and sisters in Eastern Germany” in Dein Päckchen nach Drüben (Your care package to Eastern Germany); his wry “hommage” to the promises of material comfort, Sekt für Alle (Champagne for everyone, 1963), features a single champagne glass and three balloonlike faces floating nearby. In Weichnachten in der Heimat (Christmas at home, 1964), the invitation that the title extends emerges from the mouth of a man’s face in profile; beside that, a childlike rendering of what might be a battleship and beneath that, a “doodled” holiday scene—just a few spare lines suggesting a tree with lights, a single wrapped gift, a child tumbling toward it. And in an untitled work from the same year, prosperity is signified by nothing more than the notion of an overabundance of sausages to stuff our faces with. In a sense, Polke draws on his inventory of West German values during the ’60s like an awestruck boy, who appropriates, as pictures, the things he both openly—and secretly—desires: the promises held out by adulthood, as it were. His naiveté has its marvelously backfiring effect: Pralinen (Candy,1963) is as tempting as, say, Richters Mehrzweck-Tischkreissäge (Richter’s multipurpose buzz saw, 1965), which is as exciting as the erotic invitations extended by Saturday-night-club, 1965.

In these terms, Polke’s drawings are valuable historical documents. Reflections of the surrogate character of reality, they serve to critique the dominant stylistic constraints of the time by mirroring them, as well as simultaneously mirroring possibilities for artistic expression outside them.

From the very outset, for example, the seeming naiveté of these drawings is achieved through a high degree of formal economy that gives the pictorial confrontation its laconic bite. There are works from the year 1963 in which Polke burlesques informally in the form of presumably intuitive ballpoint squiggles sanctified by red watercolors; or he wittily quotes, as in the three brand-new shirts that are depicted in as orderly a fashion as the four Constructivist-like rectangles we find in another untitled drawing. After 1965, the shallow and anecdotal recede, and numerous artistic questions become the pictorial subject matter, but even these “abstract” works develop something like a reference to secular objects. This corpus of 100 drawings attests to an extraordinary investigation of objective reality and its translation into art, a translation that anchors Polke’s work, even at its most eccentric, in this world.

Once, when discussing Polke’s drawings, A. R. Penck spoke of the “discipline of training.” It’s this discipline, we might say, that enables one to hear orders issued by “higher beings.” To take this notion one step further: if intuition is to be established as a credible partner for the artist, then it must be constantly tested in the pictorial outcome. This volume of Polke drawings truly constitutes more than an offering of his “juvenilia” to the now “mature” artist and his audience. For here, one can almost literally read the story of an artist taking a stance, asking questions, producing works of intellectual and spiritual impact out of those questions, and accomplishing all this in extremely difficult times. Thus, to enter this volume of Polke’s life and career is to enter a utopia, and if I know the publisher, this was his intention.

Max Wechsler is a writer who lives in Lucerne. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.


Sigmar Polke—Zeichnungen 1963–1969 (Sigmar Polke—Drawings 1963–1969), ed. Johannes Gachnang (Bern/Berlin: Verlag Gachnang & Springer, 1987), 230 pages, 100 color reproductions.