PRINT October 2010


Sigmar Polke

I FIRST MET SIGMAR POLKE in the 1970s—a decade that has been dealt with too summarily in most of his retrospectives to date, since the prevailing opinion has been that the artist spent these years devoting himself to almost anything but painting: photography, film, travel, experiments in collective living, and other consciousness-expanding activities. But shortly before his death at age sixty-nine in June of this year, an extraordinary exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle—organized by Petra Lange-Berndt, Dietmar Rübel, and Dorothee Böhm—offered a finely articulated, revisionist look at his ’70s production. Titled “Wir Kleinbürger!” (We Petty Bourgeois!), the show brought together a vast trove of documentation, artifacts, and artworks, both by Polke and by a number of artists to whom he was close. In addition to a profusion of photographs (which he also often sent in packets to friends), there was a selection of clips from the numerous and seldom-exhibited 16-mm films with which he recorded his activities and the company he kept. Via this expansive approach, the curators illuminated aspects of Polke’s practice that had never before been closely scrutinized, and offered the opportunity to draw fresh conclusions about his entire body of work. Far from an interregnum, they showed, the ’70s marked a fascinating phase of Polke’s career during which he amalgamated politics, art, and life, both openly exposing himself to and intelligently withdrawing from the social and political volatility of Germany.

Sigmar Polke, Lapis Lazuli II, 1994, lapis lazuli and dammar resin on canvas, 9’ 10 1/8” x 7’ 4 3/8”. All works by Sigmar Polke © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

At this time, the artist was already very successful and was being courted by numerous curators. With his unpredictability, he kept them all off balance: They would invite him to do a show or a publication, but they had no way of knowing what they would get. Polke had a large social circle, and he might (or might not) solicit the participation of members of his gang in any project he undertook. The cover of the 1975 catalogue raisonné of his prints, for example, features drawings—one of Al Capone, the other of the pope—by a Zurich Hells Angel who was an acquaintance of his. With his charisma and charm, his fur coat and snakeskin trousers, Polke was king of the scene—a word that was then only just coming into use. He drew sustenance from the collective and gave back generously. Nomadically, excessively, he traveled between Hamburg, where he held a professorship at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (teaching, or at least hanging out with, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, and Georg Herold, among others), and his commune in Willich, near Düsseldorf, where he entertained an ever-changing assemblage of guests ranging from Michael Buthe to Katharina Sieverding. He sojourned frequently in Zurich, too, where he could escape Germany’s politically fraught atmosphere and enjoy the society of the city’s miscellaneous bohemians. In 1974, he went farther afield, setting out on a road trip with two or three of his Zurich friends that took him through Afghanistan and Pakistan—in an American convertible. He wound up in Quetta, Pakistan, where he took his famous photos of hashish smokers and dog-and-bear fights.

Although the Hamburg show was replete with vivid documentation of all these activities, its fulcrum was the work from which it took its title: the exceptional Wir Kleinbürger!, 1974–76, a ten-part cycle of gouaches on enormous sheets of paper. The exhibition was organized into three parts (exploring Polke’s social milieu, his relation to pop culture, and his politics, respectively), which were on view sequentially from spring 2009 to January of this year, but Wir Kleinbürger! remained on view for the duration, demonstrating that Polke the painter kept his head throughout the entire turbulent epoch. Here, working with intense inventiveness across multiple scales (some passages are small and intricate, others large and expansive, so that the microcosmic and the macrocosmic coexist in a single painting), he laid the groundwork for his work of the 1980s. In those immensely painterly works of the ’70s, with incredible consistency and a kind of wild beauty, he explored unknown psychic and aesthetic terrains, analyzing all the possibilities of painting—a painting, as goes without saying, beyond oil on canvas, and not only beyond convention but beyond any mere parody of convention. In the later works, he carried the adventure further, smashing his pigments to smithereens against their support, as if trying to penetrate the very atoms of painting; he did everything against the grain, applying the varnish not at the end but right at the start, pouring it down copiously and manipulating it across his enormous surfaces. He used precious minerals as pigments—lapis lazuli, malachite—but also meteorite dust, and the highly poisonous orpiment (aka arsenic sulfide) and Schweinfurt green (or copper acetoarsenite, perhaps the only substance ever used as both a pigment and a rodenticide).

His ’70s excursions into photography, too, would leave their mark on his later painting practice. He transferred his experimentation with photochemistry from the darkroom to the studio, where he would use silver bromide, for example, to create surfaces that were subject to slow change over the years that followed the process of production. Thus the ’70s appear, quite logically, to have been a copula, a hinge between the cheerfully ironic works of the ’60s and the audaciously erudite art Polke produced over the last thirty years of his life. With its prodigious use of images and textual snippets appropriated from mass-media sources, moreover, Wir Kleinbürger! anticipates the extension of Polke’s practice to the remotest corners of cultural production. The cycle finds him developing his own highly volatile laboratory of images in which matter itself took on the role of a generator of creative energy.

This creative energy and erudition were nowhere more apparent than in his last great work, the stained-glass windows for Zurich’s Grossmünster. Begun in 2006 and completed in 2009, the windows combine a series of luminous mosaics of sliced and colored agate stones with other panels showing iconography from the Old Testament derived from Romanesque sources. None of this imagery is merely painted on top of the glass, as is usually done with modern stained glass. Rather, using both ancient and experimental techniques, Polke actually set the images into the glass, even incorporating a collection of precious tourmalines in one of the windows. Playing with “elemental materials” reaching back to the formation of the earth itself, Polke evoked not merely the Christian past but that of the whole of creation, as it were—an implicitly ecumenical gesture, establishing a frame of reference capable of accommodating all religions. It seems a meaningful contrast that the Hamburger Kunsthalle’s exhibition coincided with this project, bringing Polke’s immersion in the counterculture and his unfettered celebrations of sensual pleasure into congruence with this assured, deeply intelligent exploration of history and cultural tradition.

Sigmar Polke, Achatfenster nV (Agate Window No. 5), 2009, lead, dyed and natural agate stone, 53 1/2 x 107 7/8". Photo: Lorenz Ehrismann.

It was Polke’s ambition to measure and illuminate the universe—which, for him, contained all aspects of nature, of prehistoric culture and archaic worlds—without for a moment concealing that he did so with a strong connection to historical reality, particularly that of his own time; he had an acute perception of social change, and of course he did not ignore the sordid detritus of mass-media inanity. He acquired this anthropological impulse from Joseph Beuys and, via the medium of painting and his related activities, investigated the role and function of the artist in society as thoroughly as Beuys did via the medium of “social sculpture.” The Zurich Grossmünster windows, with their pyrotechnics of beauty and their insistence on intellectual freedom, show this anthropological impulse at its high-water mark.

To return to the personal remark at the beginning of this text: I do not want to understate how much my encounter with Polke influenced me. In 1977 he was the subject of my first substantial essay in an art magazine, an effusive document of my then-beginning and never-flagging enthusiasm for this exceptional artistic spirit. Nor do I want to leave unsaid, after all the decades of intense friendship, how pained I am by the idea that he is no longer here, or how much I will miss his fantastically quick wit, his attentiveness to other people, and his genuine kindness.

Sigmar’s character was also marked by a judicious unwillingness to conform to expectations. For example, his refusal to adjust to standard communication practices—such as being reachable by telephone—was legendary. But he loved to call and to repeat into the answering machine, “Message—message—message—message—message . . .” Without question, he integrated this spirit of blithe and sagacious resistance into his work—which is why his art will remain unruly and incorrigible, forever immune to the sterilizing effects of canonization.

Bice Curiger is curator at Kunsthaus Zürich and director of the 54th Venice Biennale, which will take place in 2011.

Translated from German by Elizabeth Tucker.