PRINT November 1994


“CLOTH ON CLOTH” ––this could be the slogan presiding over the intrusion on this white background of a striped shirt and a striped pair of pants. There is another shirt, this one flowered, violating the work’s linear and graphic tone—a quality evidenced in three sketched figures, dressed à la Louis XIII, each of them gathering toward his eyes a fistful of tight-stretched threads. Students of the history of perspective will recognize these three gentlemen, each with his “visual pyramid”: they appear in an engraving Abraham Bosse made for the first volume of his Manière universelle pour pratiquer la perspective (Universal method for the practice of perspective, 1648). Discrete linear configurations in the upper-left and lower-right-hand corners, recalling, among other things, certain works by François Morellet and by Frank Stella, complete the composition. The picture in question is entitled Vermessen der Kleider (Measurement of clothes, 1994), and it is among the 20 or so works that Sigmar Polke painted specifically for his show at the Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes.

At the start of the ’80s, Polke gave his work an unprecedented push, asserting himself definitively as the contemporary painter with the widest range. The sometimes dry derision and often nihilistic gratings of his first two decades gave way to a restless splendor, fed by a diversity of material and techniques and a wealth of formats. Not that his sense of humor, or of violence, disappeared; they expressed themselves, though, alongside a new, more striking pictorial experimentalism and mastery. To cite a name not usually associated with Polke’s (and the two artists are indeed very different), this transition to a new stage, one encompassing the previous achievements, reminds me of Paul Klee’s advances as of 1911–12. In both cases we find a multiplicity of interests and procedures, but also a delicate dose of irony and a need to negotiate a fruitful relationship to earlier art, from which both artists had previously been alienated. In November 1901 the younger Klee, using words in some way indicative of the dilemma that both he and Polke overcame, had written in his diary,

I am at the point of being in reasonable control of the great culture of antiquity and the Renaissance from now on; but I can’t conceive of an artistic rapport with our own era. And the desire to produce something in a way that isn’t contemporary seems suspect to me. Great disarray. That is why I am only whole as satire. Will I maybe dissolve myself completely in it? Provisionally it forms my only article of faith. Perhaps I will never be positive? In any case I will know how to defend myself like a wild animal.

By the ’80s a dialogue with art history became a sort of second nature with Polke, and his new paintings provide many examples of this protean conversation. Der Ritter II (The knight II) revives and enlarges a wood-block print—surely German, and from around 1500—that shows a seated knight drying his shoe in front of the fire. As is often the case in these works, the stretcher is visible behind and through the canvas, its bars dividing the image, though without really disrupting its legibility—even emphasizing, in fact, the focal position of the shoe. A similar effect appears in Die Drei Lügen der Malerei (The three lies of painting, 1994; for Polke, the illusion of transparency is probably one of painting’s lies). Presented as a sort of rebus on the left of this enigmatically lit work is a large vertical band of printed cloth. The motifs—multicolored hands, some with three bent fingers—simultaneously evoke the cave paintings of Lascaux and Jackson Pollock (Number 1, 1948). This still leaves much to be said and imagined about the painting in question, but gives an initial sense of the chronological range these works comprehend.

Polke—today 53, and at work for over 30 years—has been using cloth of all kinds for a long time, and one of his paintings in Nîmes he made entirely without paint: Handtücher (Hand towels, 1994), as its title indicates, is made of small towels sewn together over the canvas’ surface. One towel toward the center of this great patchwork is embroidered with Dürer’s Hare (date and monogram included), in white on a pink background. The allusive process here is rather complex, in that it refers not just to Dürer but to Polke himself. He has often borrowed from Dürer (the tutelary figure of German art, referenced also by Joseph Beuys in his time), for example in the series of eight “Dürer-Schleifen-Bildern” (Dürer-curlicues-pictures, 1986). In 1968 he even painted the Hare itself, on a ground of printed cloth. As with the clothing appliquéd into Vermessen der Kleider, an equivocal game begins, a play on canvas as cloth and vice versa. The game is advanced by the flap of canvas that overflows the stretcher and dangles from the work’s right side, demonstrating to dreamers and the distracted that kitchen cloths and paintings share not only, sometimes, the same visual sources of inspiration but the same fabric of support.

Polke’s link with painting’s history clearly goes far beyond iconography. The two “Lapis Lazuli” he made for the Nîmes exhibition, using a blue pigment prized in the Renaissance, participate in the new deal he has effected at the heart of abstract painting, confusing our received ideas of abstraction by peopling his canvases with puddles and stains suspended between form and informe, with images in the process of becoming, disclosed in part or not at all according to each viewer’s fantasy. This principle of ambiguity, or rather of doubt, is most obvious in the imposing Marienerscheinung (The apparition of the Virgin Mary, 1994), a mural over 16 feet high, strewn with a mass of blue dots that gets denser toward the bottom. Reversing the process of “abstraction” illustrated by Theo van Doesburg’s canonical Cow, 1925—a process of moving from the representational image to an abstract form of it—Marienerscheinung recalls not only Rorschach but Leonardo da Vinci, who recommended training oneself to see landscapes and figures in old walls and stones; Pollock again, especially in the post-1950 work; and more broadly the whole perennial problematic of the accidental image. These works leave the at once flattering and difficult role of completing them entirely to the viewer.

With an intelligence sufficiently rare to be worth noting, a recent monograph on Goya closes with a quick suggestion of the relationship between Polke’s work and that of the Spanish painter.1 The author compares certain of Polke’s paintings to the “Disparates” (Follies), Goya’s famous etchings of 1824, but surely the earlier “Caprichos” would have been just as appropriate. (Indeed the monograph even reproduces a Polke work, So sitzen Sie richtig (nach Goya), that quotes Goya’s Capricho 26.) In European art of Goya’s time, the term capricho, “caprice,” in effect connotes the absolute sovereignty of invention. And Polke—this leaps out at you—is a true Mother of Invention.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is an art historian, critic, curator, and the editor of Les Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.

1. Janis Tomlinson, Francisco Goya y Lucientes, 1746–1828, London: Phaidon, 1994.