TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 1991

ADDITION + ABUNDANCE: SIGMAR POLKE

THE RECEIVED VIEW OF Sigmar Polke’s art is that it responds and corresponds to an international culture awash with disposable images whose plenitude flattens their meaning and whose reproducibility deprives them of origins. When I first saw his work, in the early 1980s, I felt relief, not that it was less pessimistic than I had expected, but that it was more puzzling. Polke’s paintings showed that it is possible to do well—without pretension or preciousness—what David Salle was already famous for doing shabbily, with opportunistic haste: to layer images from disparate contexts so as to engender what might be called a field of contextlessness. What makes Polke’s art confirming is that it constructs distinctly pictorial sensations that both connect it to the lineage of modern painting and acknowledge the inescapable perception of all artifacts as indeterminately interpretable by dint of there being too many contexts, too many possible vantage points, in which they have disparate meanings.

It is Salle’s work, not Polke’s, that may be summed up as a gloss on a historical moment of nihilism induced by public image overload. Salle’s painting characterizes the experience of art now as limited inexorably to flavors of nostalgia or cynicism or both, and as fundamentally forgettable, being infected with the very cultural condition of which it is an artistic symptom. But Polke’s convincing and troubling work is immune to nostalgia, and does not fade easily from memory. It shows that despite all we know of the fishiness, the superfluity, the overdetermination of culture high and low, art continues, as if by magic, to have its pleasures and uses. But to avail ourselves of them, Polke reminds us, we have to admit that we value art not because we can analyze it (nothing is safe from deconstruction now, nor should it be) but because, despite analysis, art can preserve inexplicability—on reality’s behalf, we might say—without mystification.

Consider an early “conceptual” painting by Polke titled Lösungen (Solutions, 1967), a key work. It is a vertical rectangle of stretched burlap evenly coated with white lacquer.Across its surface run nine evenly shaped rows of symbols, painted in black: 1 + 1 = 3, 2 + 3 = 6,4 + 4 = 5,7 + 3 = 8,5 + 1 =2, etc. Not one of the sums is correct. Is this merely an exercise in flouting the rules of addition, code for the artist’s prerogative of doing things his own way? Only in part, I think—the discrepant tallies also hint at a range of possible disputes about what the rules of correct procedure and of symbolism are, about what people must agree upon, about the purposes of computation, of symbols for quantity, of logical consistency. Some of Wittgenstein’s ruminations on mathematics come to mind: “Isn’t it possible to derive anything from anything according to some rule or other—nay, according to any rule with a suitable interpretation? . . . Assume that human beings learn to calculate, roughly as in fact they do; but now imagine different ‘surroundings’ which turn the calculating, now into a psychological experiment, now into a physical experiment with the marks used in calculating, now into something else!”1 This might be the very proposal made in Polke’s Lösungen: that rather than fix on “correctness,” we imagine how the results presented might be accounted for in nonmathematical terms.

Wittgenstein’s point is that there is nothing absolute about mathematics, that it is an edifice of human inventions that draws its meaning and purpose from the ways it is embedded in larger patterns of life. He sees calculation as an example of a technique that produces the “correct” arithmetic results only when everyone agrees how it must be done; incorrect results may betray miscalculation, or a misunderstanding of what calculation consists in, or they may arise from a wholly different conception of human affairs or of operations with mathematical symbols. “From a certain point of view, the non-agreement of the one who is doing the sums (i.e., the mistakes) gets treated, not as something bad, but as something psychologically interesting.”2 Outside the schoolbook—for example, in a painting—calculations may work in nonmathematical ways that alter our sense of the technique and its results. “It is essential to calculating that everyone who calculates right produces the same pattern of calculation. And ‘calculating right’ does not mean calculating with a clear understanding or smoothly; it means calculating like this.”3

Calculation and its results, in Wittgenstein’s view, are matters of definitions, conventions, and rules, not of empirical or of metaphysical reference. Polke’s work hinges on just such recognitions. Aware that we cannot but think about art in language, he shows that a painting can force its viewers into confrontations with the language games—of introspection, of psychological and sociological speculation, of art-historical analysis—in which art interpretation is embedded. Lösungen functions like one of Wittgenstein’s more colorful parables: “Let us imagine a god creating a country instantaneously in the middle of the wilderness,” Wittgenstein proposes, “which exists for two minutes and is an exact reproduction of a part of England, with everything that is going on there in two minutes. Just like those in England, the people are pursuing a variety of occupations. . . . One of these people is doing exactly what a mathematician in England is doing, who is just doing a calculation. Ought we to say that this two-minute-man is calculating? Could we for example not imagine a past and a continuation of these two minutes which would make us call the processes something quite different?”4

Now think of Polke, godlike, showing us something—the painting Lösungen—that looks like a document of the real world but is really an artwork, displaying what appear to be calculations but are really goads to our reenvisioning the language, psychology, society, and history that enframe them. (Note that on this reading, all the envisioning goes on outside painting.) If these are “solutions,” the painting suggests, then the artist is going by different rules from the person trying to balance a checkbook. Then again, maybe these ostensible miscalculations express a recognition of just how pliable and convenient to those in control of society’s institutions are the accepted rules of financial speculation and of economic inequity. (Bear in mind that in 1963, while still an art student, Polke, with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Fischer-Lueg, staged an exhibition in a Düsseldorf furniture store titled “A demonstration for capitalist realism.”)

Perhaps the problems to which Polke offers “solutions” are not those posed by his numerical symbols. Suppose the “solutions” are not the numerals to the right of each equals sign but this whole matrix of symbols, which answers to the problem of giving intellectual structure to a nonreferential painting. The sums’ incorrectness then serves to subvert any sense of the numerals as a code for representing the world. I wonder too whether Polke may have been thinking of Jasper Johns’ pictures of numbers, for he carefully avoids the vestige of pictorial symbolism—numerical figures as surrogate human figures—implicit in Johns’ sensuous handling of his numeral paintings and prints.

In retrospect, Lösungen looks like a skeletal—deestheticized—model of what Polke’s work would become. Many of his paintings from the 1970s and 1980s have the structure “image + image + image. . . + decoration = nonsynthesis.” Technically, those paintings purport to combine images (just as Lösungen claims to combine numbers), but the result is typically a display of incommensurability (except perhaps at the level of decoration). The ingredients of the pictures set us wondering what adjustments in our assumptions about the psychology of the artist, or about the world, or about the history of art or the function of painting, might render transparent the sense of the picture before us.

By its structure, Polke’s art pretends to be communicative, but it is not. Rather it deflects the viewer’s probing for discursive content into reflections on frames of reference, interpretive tactics, how to imagine circumstances that might give his collisions of imagery the sort of meaning that their formulation in terms inherited from painting suggests they have. Sanford Schwartz has written of Polke, “His pictures sometimes feel as though they were the products of a post-apocalypse person who doesn’t know what art is but has a desire to make paintings, and so uses, as starters, whatever images he can find—cartoons, ads, posters—and then, in a somewhat spastic and dribbly way, decorates them.”5 Painting has died a thousand deaths in the modern era, and Polke is one of those artists who seems able to resurrect it by will and constructive flair alone. The “post-apocalypse” air that Schwartz notes is Polke’s curious power to remind us that he is animating a dead art—making a monster of sorts—each time he makes a picture. (A few wear a sort of movie-monster look: Der Ritter [The knight] and UFO, both 1988, the latter featuring an owl borrowed from Goya, and Schwarzer Mann [Black man], 1982, for example.) One of the ways he does this is to work on fabrics printed with images that we cannot but see as expired signs, dead of banality, of rote repetition, of sheer distance from human touch and communicative intent. He often avoids cotton or linen canvas, as though it were no longer available. He has also used flimsy-looking synthetic fabrics so sheer they reveal the bars on which he stretches them, or has soaked the cloth in resin, making it semitransparent, for the same effect.

THE “POST-APOCALYPSE” QUALITY of Polke’s work derives also from his mindfulness of World War II. His childhood may have given him a vivid sense of the world’s self-destruction as an ever-present possibility. (He was born in Silesia in 1941, and escaped from East to West Germany alone at the age of 12.) Among the ramifying references of Lösungen is the title’s faint echo of the phrase “Final Solution,” euphemism for Nazi genocide, for the ultimate intolerance of difference. In several works of the 1980s the allusion to genocide is more overt: each of the “Hochsitz” (Watchtower) works, 1984–88, for example, is shadowed with the image of a small shed on high struts, which might be the sort of forest lookout that hunters use to spot game, or might be the guard post of a concentration camp.

The latter reading is reinforced by Lager (Camp, 1982), a tall vertical picture made of stitched-together lengths of fabric on which appear two spans of barbed-wire fence. The view skyward between them recedes into distance and into darkness; the upper part of the picture is smeared with orange, ocher, and yellow tones vaguely suggestive of a sunset. Midway down, a swath of striped blanket interrupts a surface otherwise free of readymade decoration. The blanket looks like something borrowed from the work of Kenneth Noland, or some other specialist in stripe painting. By his use of it Polke may have intended to rebuke formalist painters for the willful blindness to worldly reality announced in their work. The blanket’s pattern of stripes also recalls musical staves, especially where spatters of black paint provide something like a scattering of notes. Perhaps this refers to the part music played in the Nazis’ sense of their own cultivation—or perhaps not. Again, the ingredients of Polke’s work combine to form not meanings per se but possibilities of meaning among which we must choose or know that we are refraining from choosing. Quite unambiguous, though, is the foreground of Lager, which is sunk in sooty blackness, as if only visual obliteration could stand for the inexpressibility of what it was to be “on the ground” at the Nazis’ mercy. No other painting by Polke “adds up” quite as bluntly as this.

The arbitrariness of Polke’s errant sums in Lösungen may itself echo authoritarianism—the work is like the classroom blackboard of a teacher arrogantly insisting that we learn all the wrong answers. But it simultaneously sabotages interpretive closure. These equations are mechanisms of reason that misfire, and in this respect they foreshadow other political works that convey a bitter skepticism. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, 1988, seems to borrow its imagery from some popular print of the late 18th century. It shows three men’s heads raised high on pikes. Revolution as a logical product of Enlightenment faith in reason, and of the attendant rejection of organized religion (in the painting’s background is a burning church steeple), is juxtaposed with the three decapitated heads, a Calvary of violence. As Ronald Paulson has noted, decapitation by the mechanism of the guillotine had a special meaning: “Beheading with a machine suggested not only the rationalism of the philosophes, who were widely regarded as fathers of the Revolution, but the factory of the Industrial Revolution and mass production. It carried the disquieting implication that the machine would continue to cut off heads, as a pinmaker continues to make pins, as long as it is supplied with bodies.”6

Violence has changed little over the years except in its justifications. What Polke’s painting tells us is that liberty, equality, brotherhood—or any of the values cited in support of violence—may eventually number among violence’s casualties. This is one of Polke’s pictures in which resin-permeated fabric is translucent enough to allow the stretcher bars to show through from behind. The hazy vertical and horizontal wooden slats, and one long diagonal, have a strange effect: they give the image the optical weightlessness of a projection, making it float, yet they seem to anchor its meaning by declaring Polke’s willingness to let the structural facts of an art object show for what they are.

Le jour de gloire est arrivé. . . ., 1988, is similar in visual makeup and implication. It too appears to borrow imagery from an antique print, and apparently describes the immediate aftermath of an urban insurrection, with the bodies of dead and wounded strewn down what might be the stone steps of a public building. The image is defined graphically in an inky blue on a honey-colored ground. A billow of rose-colored stain rises on the left of the picture and runs across its upper third, obscuring the image and suggesting diluted blood. As in Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the dissonance between title and image in this picture presents as characteristic of political zeal the sort of miscalculation—become deadly—that appears dry, conceptual, and comic in Lösungen.

THE TRADITIONAL SENSE of a picture as a window on an imagined or recollected world is another belief that Polke, by his freewheeling inconsistency of style, explodes again and again. The effort to sidestep recognizable style, with its implicit stamp of an authorial self, has guided his art almost from the beginning. (In this respect, Polke’s work resembles that of his contemporary and erstwhile friend Richter.) Joseph Beuys is one source of the idea that an artist’s work ought to shed marks of identity. A similar attitude is shared by the artists associated with arte povera, such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio, Giuseppe Penone, and Jannis Kounellis. To these artists, as to Polke, an idea for a work may suggest appropriate materials or materials may suggest an idea. It is important that the artist remain flexible and open to suggestions, available to promptings of the reality within which the work takes form and meaning.

This aim surfaces jocularly in Polke pictures such as the pendant Handlinien Links (Lines of the left palm) and Handlinien Rechts (Lines of the right palm) of 1968, painted on silver-flecked swaths of a synthetic fabric known as Lurex. These patterns of curves traced in black acrylic purport to record the creases of the artist’s hands in which a palmist might discern the lineaments of his character and future. On different principles, a critic might attempt to assess the artist’s prospects on the basis of his “hand,” which he disavows here by diagramming it literally. (The lines in these pictures have a Kandinskyan lilt to them, despite their deadpan execution.) These pictures mock the idea of artworks—particularly abstract paintings—as direct transcriptions of the artist’s sensibility. They drag the expressionist idea of art down by equating it with faith in palmistry and by associating palmistry, through the fabric’s trashy glitz, with the credulity of unschooled taste.

In works such as these Polke starts to drive toward the stance of more recent paintings that accept the expressiveness of art as both inevitable, because the human world is pervasively expressive and interpretable, and indeterminate, because art’s expressiveness is due not principally to the individual artist but to circumstances and forces beyond his or anyone’s control. A sense of contextlessness arising from the overlap of too many contexts, and feelings of both resignation and mischief before the expressiveness of all human artifacts: these are the preoccupations of Polke’s art. They confer its timeliness and pessimism. Two responses to them govern most of his mature work: a choice of immersion, of entanglement—reluctant or exuberant—in the historically given complexities, and a sense of awe before, and fragile hope for possible transcendence of, historical reality.

George Trow has described television as delivering those who watch it into “the context of no context.”7 In America, the ever-increasing power of television has dissolved the boundaries that once seemed to exist between the world people see with their eyes and the world that the mass media instruct them to believe is real. Being “in the context of no context” has become a central sensation of life, and Polke is one of the few artists whose work in (more or less) traditional media inhabits it. From a European perspective, the friction of frames of reference in his art may pertain more to the long history of image making that preceded the hegemony of television in mundane culture. From an American vantage point, his work demonstrates that painting has a future even in a world invisibly restructured by electronic imaging.

As for its pessimism, much of Polke’s art is post-Modernist in the sense of suggesting that in the criticism of culture there is nothing to do now but play, for that is where unpredictability may lie.

POLKE’S WORK MAY BE SEEN as having passed through several phases, though the transitions are not easily pinpointed. His paintings and drawings of the early 1960s look almost like Pop art. They have subjects like socks, plastic tubs, a chocolate bar. A number, such as Freundinnen (Girlfriends, 1965), show models and dance-hall girls caught in screens of benday dots that suggest the newspaper photo, or in some cases the television raster; these pictures are esthetically midway between Richter’s contemporaneous painted snapshots of girls and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip dot paintings. Polke’s raster paintings have none of the graphic assurance or bright expansiveness of Lichtenstein: they look homespun and hungry by comparison.

In the mid 1960s, Polke began painting affectionate satires of Modernist style—or rather of popular and mass-produced mimicries of Modernism—often on found fabrics printed with patterns. The blend of fondness and caustic irony in these pictures is almost unique to Polke: they ridicule the idea of style as a progressive social or spiritual force even as they express delight in the process of slapping pictures together. The combination of manifest pleasure in making something that has a polemical look and indifference to its persuasive effect seems as “off” as one of the equations in Lösungen.

Conceptual works like Lösungen, Moderne Kunst (Modern art, 1968), the palm paintings, and Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke Schwarz malen! (Higher powers command: paint the upper right corner black!, 1969) mark Polke’s transition to the larger, more complex pictures of the 1970s such as Alice im Wunderland(Alice in Wonderland, 1971) and Zwei Köpfe (Two heads, 1971–73). Höhere Wesen befahlen ridicules the notion implicit in Kasimir Malevich at his most polemical and Piet Mondrian at his most theosophical that abstraction in painting serves purposes subtler, purer, or more elevated than those of representational imagery. In Polke’s painting, the upper right corner of the white rectangular canvas is indeed painted black. Below, the picture’s title in German is neatly lettered as if typewritten. “Beings” or “states” are other possible translations of Wesen, which is usually rendered as “powers” when the painting is discussed in English. Naturally we ask: who—or what—are these higher beings, states, powers? They might be subtle aspects of the artist’s own psyche, but in Polke’s title there is a deliberately disturbing overtone of submission to fancied authoritarian superiors. Polke’s painting suggests that faith in esthetic imperatives foreshadows a dangerous susceptibility to more pragmatic authority. At the same time, there is a touch of the ludicrous here—all the theorizing and soul searching that might once have led to such a painting as this are reduced to a single, unquestioned imperative in which the artist is strangely passive. A black triangle on a white ground, Polke tells us, may be just that.

Polke has acknowledged that Alice im Wunderland, which quotes John Tenniel’s illustration of the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Lewis Carroll, confesses his own involvement with psychoactive drugs. (Perhaps that is one reason the painting is riddled with polka dots, a pun of which the artist is well aware.) The picture is painted entirely on found fabrics. Along the bottom runs a narrow band of blue cloth covered with large white dots. Up the center runs a wide stretch of black fabric bearing the same dot pattern. Flanking it on both sides are strips of bright green material printed with a colorful, dizzyingly repeated pattern of men playing soccer. Over the strip at the right Polke has painted in thin milky-white silhouette a basketball player leaping upward to touch the ball with his fingertips. The Tenniel caterpillar, glowering down at Alice from a beach-umbrella-size toadstool, dominates the other two thirds of the surface. He is painted in the same ghostly white, with blots of red and transparent yellow on the mushrooms below him.

It is all but impossible for one’s eye to come to rest in this picture, both because the buzz of patterns hardly permits it and because there seems to be no real reason to dwell on details. The picture is an emblem of a state of attention that consists in hovering spellbound at the surface, with no confidence that anything lies below it and no particular interest in finding out. The image itself seems playfully in midair, with its floating dots, its leaping sportsmen, its absence of any ground to stand on. Polke has aimed at and achieved a hallucinatory or magical quality in many paintings since Alice. The multiple layers of information he often establishes present us with the possibility of not choosing among them, of accepting them just as they appear, in the spirit of relishing a hallucination. We might even say that Polke’s art presents hallucination—or a gaze relaxed enough to enjoy the part that imagination plays in it—as the alternative to compulsive interpretation.

I have argued that to turn interpretation back on itself or back upon the interpreter and his analytic tools is the aim of much of Polke’s work. By frustrating and deflecting interpretation, he defends the fragile magic of art, which depends abjectly upon participant vision. His images can induce a jamming of thoughts in the viewer’s mind that results in engaged silence (as opposed—pointedly—to the silence of obliviousness). Polke’s abstract paintings of the 1980s appear to be addressed to a mind already in this state of engaged silence.

Polke’s abstractions are his most extreme experiments with the chemistry of his art. Although he does work on canvas, in a number of these pictures he no longer uses paint; his unconventional materials are synthetic resins, metal powders, meteoric dust, and other raw pigments, some of which change color over time. Neither the camera nor individual memory suffices to record the history of chemical changes as they affect the appearance of these canvases. The processes at play in them are beyond Polke’s control (Beuys’ influence surely figures here), and they undermine the idea of the work of art as something that materializes values in a form exempt from change over time.

A 1982 series called “Negativwert”(Negative value), the 1983 work Hallucinogen, and a 1988 series titled “The Spirits that Lend Strength Are Invisible” (after a Native American proverb) are recognizable as paintings by their rectangular formats and their inner lights. The “Negativwert” pictures, colored with pigment of violets and sometimes with red lead, are dark, turbulent looking, seemingly without form. Their titles incorporate the names of stars, encouraging us to view them as something like abstract nocturnes. The play of light and dark in Negativwert II: Mizar, 1982, harks back to the sublimities of German Romantic landscape painting, with a nod perhaps to Mark Rothko. Bars of purple paint in Hallucinogen seem to speed across the canvas, while greenish patches float evanescent and weightless in an indeterminate space; it’s as if the canvas itself were a drug acting on the viewer to deny a sense of a fixed viewpoint. “The Spirits that Lend Strength” are large canvases slathered with honey-colored synthetic resin (which is said to be darkening slowly with time) and dusted with tellurium or nickel powders, or painted with silver nitrate, or sprinkled with silver leaf. One picture is strewn with pulverized meteorite, material from off-world. When they are exhibited together, the “Negativwert” pictures and “The Spirits that Lend Strength” sequence seem literally related, like night and day, as though Polke had sought abstract terms in which to respond to the simplest and most universal facts of daily life.

Certainly the scale and openness of these works reverberate with memories of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, of the epic expectations aroused by an empty movie screen, and of the 18th-century concept of the sublime. In fact their humorlessness and mindfulness of their own cosmetics is troubling: the beauty of Polke’s painting—in every sense—has always been its seemingly offhand richness, whether optical or conceptual. Perhaps Polke has begun to regard himself as a seer rather than a trickster, as someone who has finally found “solutions.” (To one canvas Polke has adhered Neolithic tools, a spell-breaking sentimental touch, in my view.) If so, we may be losing a unique and eminent artist. On the other hand, these imageless works appear as uncomposed as anything Polke has made: we cannot tell what degree of control he had over their final form. (And as long as their chemistry is unstable, there is no telling when they may assume a “final” form.) This is an unusually nonauthoritarian kind of “solution.” Like nothing Polke has made before, these paintings confront us with the question of whether we need to seek meanings for them, whether looking at them may not be enough. This is not a disguised return to the formalist autonomy of the art object that immediately confers “conviction” as to its quality. On the contrary, it is uncertain on what basis these objects are to be accepted as “paintings” at all. They are more like revelations of a void that paintings in the European and American traditions once sufficed to fill, physical evocations (in pictorial formats) of spiritual need.

For his first American museum retrospective, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Polke did an installation that treated the idea of spiritual longing with burlesque expansiveness and included almost everything but painting. The installation occupied the museum’s enormous top-floor rotunda space. Its central element, Jacob’s Ladder, was a huge ladder of cylindrical aluminum that stretched upward from the floor through the skylight in the thirty-six-foot-high ceiling. At the ladder’s base sat two small boulders of jade (borrowed from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco). On each wall of the room hung a painting, of a kind a photo blowup applied mechanically as paint on canvas via a computer process. The sources of the images varied—an ancient wall mosaic, perhaps a cave painting; an abstract Polke work; all but one included animals. The rotunda space has four large corner niches. Polke swabbed the curved interior of each of these with a different metallic pigment (azurite, cinnabar, malachite, gold) and hung across each niche opening a small, talismanic piece of gold. The niches were like empty shrines whose washy, pigmented interior walls held the visual promise of disclosing images but did not (at least to my eye).

Typically of Polke, the installation was a mixture of cryptic and intelligible elements. The distances and differences among its components echoed the incongruities among ingredients in many of Polke’s paintings. The ladder, its title, and the stones evidently refer to the Biblical book of Genesis, in which the patriarch Jacob sees in a dream a ladder connecting earth and heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. Polke’s ladder offered itself, then, as a symbol of passage between realms, between earth and another unknown domain. The jade boulders may have symbolized “Jacob’s Stone,” on which Jacob rested his head to sleep for the dream. The Bible makes no mention of jade in connection with Jacob; perhaps Polke chose the material in reference to the ancient Chinese belief that jade ensures immortality by preventing decomposition of the corpse.

The specific meaning of the animal images is obscure to me, except in that they betokened yet another mode of spiritual thinking, different from those of either Christianity or China. The dissonances in the work are yet another instance of Polke’s pointedly arranging elements so as not to add up, not to tender reassuring conclusions that misrepresent the mystery in human affairs. I suspect that these dissonances were meant to suggest the helplessness of intellect before ultimate questions. The giant ladder was both the physical and emotional center of the installation. Its structure echoed once more the sums in Lösungen, and the political visions of history as progressing logically toward some apocalypse or deliverance. (We might think again of Wittgenstein, remembering his famous image of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a ladder to be kicked away once the reader had used it to reach a new plateau of clarity.) But Polke’s ladder was too big to be climbed, as if made for beings “bigger than life.” The incongruities in the installation heightened the viewer’s sense of being unequipped (or perhaps unworthy) to know where the ladder might lead or in what way the world at hand transcends the sum of its parts. Jacob’s Ladder was like a grand declaration that this puzzlement is central to Polke’s art.

Kenneth Baker is a contributing editor of Artforum and art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle.

NOTES
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, trans. E. M. Ascombe, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1978, pp. 389-90.
2. Ibid., P. 390.
3. Ibid., p. 399.
4. Ibid., p. 336.
5. Sanford Schwartz, Artists and Writers, New York: Yarrow Press, 1990, p. 203.
6. Ronald Paulson, “The Severed Head: The Impact of French Revolutionary Caricatures on England,” in French Caricatures and the French Revolution, 1789–1799, ed. Lynne Hockman, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, 1988, p. 58.
7. George W. S. Trow, Within the Context of No-Context, Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

“Sigmar Polke” opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in November 1990. It can currently be seen at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., where it remains until 7 May. The exhibition then travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, from 20 July to 8 September, and the Brooklyn Museum, New York, from 11 October to 6 January 1992.