PRINT April 2014


PAINTINGS STILL WRAPPED in shipping materials and photographs strewn across the floor; a gate blocking access to key works; an exhibition design revolving around an outrageous invocation of the Holocaust: It is unlikely that such provocations could ever take place in a museum today. Yet each of these elements was sardonically deployed by Sigmar Polke in a midcareer survey, or antisurvey, of his work at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1976. Curated by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh but with an installation entirely designed by Polke, the Düsseldorf exhibition subjected the legendary artist’s own history and that of Germany to entropic unravelings and protean reconfigurations. Four years after Polke’s death and on the eve of the long-awaited, major monographic show “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” which opens April 19 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, art historian Christine Mehring reconsiders this little-known episode, illuminating some of the most confounding aspects of a prodigious, labile body of work that both invites and defies the retrospective impulse.

SOMETIME IN THE EARLY 1970S, art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh approached Sigmar Polke about curating the German artist’s first retrospective. He was firmly rebuffed. To the thirtysomething Polke, a retrospective was tantamount to a “gravestone,”1 not so much marking accomplishment as signaling the end of an artist’s prime. But Polke eventually agreed to present a Werkauswahl (selection of works) on the condition that he be involved in choosing the objects and be in charge of the hanging. Buchloh therefore did not think twice when the artist requested a carpenter to assist him with the final installation the night before the show’s April 9, 1976, opening at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. The next morning, an unsuspecting Buchloh entered the main exhibition space and found himself “stunned.”

During his night of work, Polke had evidently not spent much time worrying about the finer points of the installation. Many of his paintings were left wrapped (the way they had been shipped) and stacked against the walls, while piles of unframed Polaroids and larger prints were haphazardly scattered across the floor. Walking into this scene, Buchloh instantly knew his lenders would not be happy. What’s more, Polke, with the carpenter’s help, had built a crude wooden gate, close to twenty-five feet tall, that blocked access to about half of the main space. Most of his overnight mess was corralled behind this structure, so that visitors had to peer through the slats to catch a glimpse of the works. The lissome subjects of Polke’s painting Freundinnen (Girlfriends), 1965/1966, eagerly peeked out from the top of a stack of canvases. Randomly affixed to the gate were a couple of photos, a few covers of the tabloid Bild, and, smack in the middle, half of the diptych painting Lucky Luke and His Friends, 1971–75, featuring the titular gunslinging cartoon character. To top it off, Polke and his carpenter partner-in-crime had hammered together a series of letters to crown the gate with the greeting KUNST MACHT FREI (Art Makes You Free). Unmistakably, this was a play on Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free), the grotesquely ironic maxim—redolent, as Primo Levi observed, of “the heavy, arrogant, funereal wit to which only Germans are privy”2—inscribed on the gates of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz 1.

With a major Polke retrospective opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this month, it is worth returning to this confounding and almost entirely forgotten incident in the career of one of the most influential artists of the postwar era. Polke, who died in 2010, was famously biting, reclusive, and interview-shy; what might his conception and execution of this peculiar retrospective tell us about his self-understanding? How might the show inform our own understanding of the oeuvre that is about to receive such a stately survey?

To answer such questions, one must first reckon with the slogan Polke emblazoned across his slapdash gate. Anyone would readily conclude that the artist—for no discernible reason, except possibly to promote himself—had blatantly instrumentalized the horrors of the mass extermination of Jews and others under National Socialism. It’s one thing for an artist to paint canvases like Polke’s Lager (Camp), 1982, depicting a double barbed-wire fence and violently punctured by holes burned into the fabric support. That is a comparatively reserved, perhaps aestheticized, but surely safe gesture leaving ample room for commemorative readings. It’s another thing to effectively re-create a giant camp gate in the middle of a prospering postwar West German city, decorate it with a comic-book cowboy, equate art with the deadly forced labor endured by camp inmates, and perpetuate what would seem to be another instance of the Germans’ “heavy, arrogant, funereal wit.” Buchloh rightly feared a scandal. Indeed, Jürgen Harten, the Kunsthalle’s young director, reportedly felt compelled to close the show before it even opened and changed his mind only to avoid an even greater scandal. Then there was nothing to do but wait for the deluge of fury.

But, strangely, it never came. Neither Buchloh nor Harten recollects any outrage about the gate—or, for that matter, any reaction at all. Newspaper accounts corroborate their memories, with many conspicuously neglecting to mention the slogan. One local reviewer noted “a blocked room in which [Polke] left an ingenious chaos” and left it at that; another dryly reported that Polke “nailed up the main hall with wooden boards.”3 Later, a gallerist who had been one of the artist’s dealers at the time recalled that people just dismissed it all as a joke. When Harten was asked whether he remembered the intervention as provocative, he conceded, “Yes and no; we were used to provocation in Düsseldorf”4—a reference to the many impromptu exhibitions, performances, and protests staged in the 1960s by artists associated with the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf or just residing in this “city of artists.” If Polke unscrupulously intended to make his first big show a succès de scandale, he failed spectacularly.

Certainly Polke shouldn’t have been surprised at this outcome, for the fact is that, when it came to the Third Reich and the Holocaust, the artist was no stranger to provocations that failed to provoke. He had begun using charged iconography early on: One of his ballpoint-pen drawings, Die Erscheinung des Hakenkreuzes (The Apparition of the Swastika), ca. 1963, depicts two chimneys spewing smoke from which a body rises, its torso and face blacked out; concentration-camp-style barracks erase any doubt as to the setting, while a swastika crisply and blatantly looms in a white area above. In the 1968 abstraction Konstruktivistisch (Constructivist), the swastika returns; cropped so that it isn’t immediately recognizable, it makes itself visible in a sinister gestalt shift. Such stealth coexisted with flagrancy: At some point, Polke is said to have marched into an art opening performing the Nazi salute. But perhaps even more outrageous is a text he penned in 1964 that remained unpublished for thirty years. The piece takes the form of a fake interview between Gerhard Richter, Polke’s friend at the time and, until the year prior, a fellow student at the Kunstakademie, and John Anthony Thwaites, the British diplomat turned leading art critic of the Rhineland scene. The author has his fictional Richter boastfully describe his paintings as so powerful that they can serve—indeed, have served—as agents of genocide. Polke’s obscene imagination and brazen words are deeply disturbing to this day:

GR: . . . You’ve never seen such good pictures, no one has ever seen such good pictures, and I can’t show them to anyone; because everyone would collapse. So first I hung fabric over all the pictures, and then, when I was further along, I overpainted them all white again. . . .

JAT: And now?

GR: Now I don’t paint at all anymore, because I don’t want to have the whole human race on my conscience.

JAT: How many viewers have succumbed to your works so far?

GR: I don’t know exactly. The exact numbers have of course been captured statistically—they run into the thousands—but I can’t concern myself with trivia. Earlier on, well, that was more interesting, when the big death camps in Eastern Europe worked with my pictures. The inmates dropped dead at mere sight. Even though those were still the simple pictures. Anyone who survived the first show was killed off by a slightly better picture.

JAT: And your drawings?

GR: I haven’t done a lot. Buchenwald and Dachau had two each, Bergen-Belsen one. Those were mostly used for torture purposes.5

In these instances, too, Polke did not elicit much of a response—either from his contemporaries in the ’60s and ’70s or from later critics and historians. The drawing is obscure and the painting rarely written about, the salute has remained the stuff of gossip, and the interview was belatedly published, resounding like a tree falling in an unpopulated forest.

This bizarrely muted reception is both significant and symptomatic. The absence of any public discussion of the Düsseldorf exhibition’s most confrontational element—or, for that matter, of Polke’s similarly incendiary works and actions—clearly conforms to the patterns of repression and forgetting analyzed by Theodor W. Adorno in his 1959 lecture “Was bedeutet Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?” (What Does Working Through the Past Mean?) and diagnosed in Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s 1967 book Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern (The Inability to Mourn). The amnesia was still palpably evident less than three years after Polke’s installation in the utter astonishment with which West Germans met the 1979 broadcast of the American television series Holocaust. In its very pervasiveness, this denial meant that the outrageousness, the offensiveness, and the incredible bad taste of Polke’s ironic gestures were perhaps perversely necessary. It may have seemed imperative to find a mode of addressing these subjects that would not allow the audience to take refuge in self-deception and that could not possibly be folded back into superficial commemoration, as any effort to make tasteful art about genocide would be. (Other German artists of Polke’s generation were putting forward similarly “distasteful” and outrageous propositions, and perhaps were motivated by similar perceptions—for example, Richter and Konrad Lueg who, in the ’60s, considered staging an exhibition of concentration-camp photographs and pornographic images. But the comparison only goes so far: Richter and Lueg had qualms and abandoned their plan.) In West Germany’s vexed circumstances, incomparable with non-German contexts, good taste was the worst taste possible. Yet, even more perversely, Polke’s bad taste wasn’t bad enough. His unstated mission to pierce denial with shock remained incomplete, as attested by the obliviousness of the retrospective’s critics and viewers.

SUCCESSFUL OR NOT, these attempts at provocation should be given serious consideration, highlighting as they do the ways in which the conundrum famously articulated by Adorno—the problem of art after Auschwitz—was compounded in Germany. Provocation for Polke, it seems, was the product of a very raw and very real desire for art and artists to have an impact: to assert a presence in an ever-expanding art world in which West Germany felt peripheral to New York, to summon hidden images and truths, and to have a powerful effect on viewers. In order to do this, there was of course the looming precedent that could not be ignored, the regime that had exerted power with great effectiveness. Polke had to contend with the fact that National Socialism had been perhaps singularly adept at the aestheticization of politics. Like few political movements before it, National Socialism had believed in and exploited the power of the visual, as is so apparent in (fellow artist) Adolf Hitler’s mobilization of symbols such as the swastika. Beyond the imperative to shake the nation out of its ethical slumber, confronting the past—finding some way to turn Nazi iconography against itself, to neutralize or trump it—was necessary for the continuation of German art.

The same canniness that allowed Hitler to deploy symbolism so adroitly also permitted him to grasp the real danger and power of modern art, which is why he banned it as “degenerate.” That was another “safe” subject that Polke soon tackled, in the key 1983 painting Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) and in the eponymous 1995 print commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Both versions are based on a photograph of masses of people lining up to see that infamous exhibition at one of its many venues, the Hamburger Kunsthalle. (Hamburg perhaps had special significance for Polke, for it was there that he taught from 1977 to 1991.) In both works, the painter uses his signature raster dots and transparent washes of color, vaguely bringing postwar gestural abstraction to mind. While each of these elements heightens the sense of temporal distance (the dots blur the image and the yellow lacquer suggests varnish and advanced age), they also register as pastiche, recognized by 1983 as a thoroughly contemporary device. With this confluence of temporalities, Polke conjures the supposed triumph of postwar abstraction over totalitarian realism but poses an uncomfortable question: How far had present-day Germany truly come since wreaking havoc on modern art?

In the years leading up to the 1983 painting, history gradually became more and more important to Polke’s artmaking. This was a decisive departure from his almost myopic version of Pop in the decade prior, when his paintings, far more radically than those of his Capitalist Realist comrade Richter, seemed to establish an absolute contemporaneity, as if to insist on the commodity’s mindless eternal present. That said, Polke would never be interested in history as artifact, as object of study or contemplation, but rather in history as part of a continuum, as something inextricably entwined with the present. This shift was partially fueled, it appears, by the artist’s travels to such far-flung locales as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The photographs Polke took during these travels reflect his impressions of cultures more deeply traditional than his own, “traditional” being understood precisely as a reaching of the past into the present.

From this perspective, Polke’s minihistory of his work in 1976—one that likely included some of these very recent photographs, aggressively manipulated with chemicals and strewn on the ground—was a watershed. In fact, Polke’s KUNST MACHT FREI installation programmatically initiated this very turn. He combined and at times effectively collapsed present and past source imagery, particularly with respect to National Socialism. The reviewer for the organ of the German Communist Party, more willing than others to engage the radical implications of the installation, reports that “on the back of the wall slides were projected that showed Imperialist crimes, Bild newspaper headlines, and Nazi giants in a continuous context. Polke subsumes all of it under the slogan: ‘And they lived happily ever after . . .’”6 Notably, one of the Bild covers Polke pinned to the gate announced the death of Francisco Franco on November 20, 1975. Franco’s demise ended the dictatorship that had begun in April 1939 and that, for Germans, was defined by Spain’s alliance with the Reich. Polke had perhaps saved the by then six-month-old newspaper because it powerfully captured the sense of a living past, the way in which contemporary events and figures can be coextensive with the stuff of history books. Such continuities had notoriously defined the coming-of-age of Polke’s generation in West Germany, where National Socialist party members and officials continued to hold positions of power into the ’60s and beyond in many sectors of society, from the executive branch of government to the judicial system to the business world.

Then there was the gate. As much as Polke’s construction evoked images of camp entrances via its inscription, it also summoned the so-called economic miracle that, since the mid-’50s, had brought unprecedented prosperity to West Germany. Enlarged to a superhuman scale, the slats, curved top edge, and humble wooden material absurdly monumentalized the garden gates found in the small plots cultivated by Germany’s petit bourgeois city dwellers. The construction’s self-made quality—first cultivated by the artist in his earlier cloth-picture patchworks and in his unstudied painting and naive drawing styles—suggests a postwar mentality of making do and improvising; such resourcefulness was widely credited with contributing to the miracle. Polke, ingeniously and unlike any other artist of his generation, captured the way that this very miracle—following Adorno and the Mitscherlichs—had nurtured a parochial fetishization of the present and a disconnection from the past.

As if embodying that unmooring from history, the capital letters in the phrase KUNST MACHT FREI float like a mirage above the installation, with some of their components nearly disappearing into the open spaces between the slats. The past, particularly the National Socialist past, seems to vanish before our eyes. By drawing a parallel with the Nazis’ false and horrific promise that work makes you free and by implicitly evoking their purge of “degenerate” art, Polke proposes that art’s historical alliance with freedom is deceptive, whether that alliance arises from German idealist aesthetics (Friedrich Schiller’s über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen [On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters] readily comes to mind) or more recent Cold War rhetoric (as in German art historian Alfred Schmeller’s insistence on informel’s embodiment of individualism over and against collective constraints).

Judging by Polke’s installation, art is far from free itself—much of his art was locked up behind the gate—and it cannot free its audience: Visitors’ movements around the space and access to the art “on display” were quite literally constrained. Against the backdrop of Germany’s National Socialist past, Polke thus questioned aesthetic tenets from multiple eras, but he also brought the problem all the way into the present. Both gate and inscription not only mediated but also limited access to, and delimited the reception of, Polke’s art. They suggested that recent German history, which Polke’s provocations urged the public to address, also framed and restricted the understanding, and even the production, of art made in Germany. In this way, Polke anticipated with uncanny foresight not only the dynamics that would shortly lead to the rapid rise of West German art on the American market but also the drawbacks of that ascendance: For international audiences, German history provided an easily accessible and immensely popular, but ultimately narrow and even reductive, lens through which to comprehend a young generation of German artists who often found themselves conforming to expectations.

The histories Polke broached in Düsseldorf would reconverge with the history of his own practice. But if the ostensible raison d’être of the show, tombstone or not, was to look retrospectively at that practice, Polke instead used the exhibition as a kind of laboratory, testing the relevance of his practice in the here and now. The various Bild covers pinned to the gate seemed to make this impulse explicit, recalling the artist’s contribution to a collaborative installation that had inaugurated his career: an object titled Massenmedien (Mass Media), made from a pile of magazines bound together (judging from photographs) and suspended in the window of the abandoned Düsseldorf butcher shop that Polke and Richter, together with their peers Manfred Kuttner and Lueg, had rented in May 1963 to stage what would come to be known as the first Capitalist Realist exhibition. While the young Polke had made a concerted effort to tame the media by tying the magazines up in a bundle and hanging them in the air, as if to remove them from circulation, the more mature artist thirteen years later appeared eager to stage a showdown between media and art. Lucky Luke pulling out his pistol as if getting ready for a gunfight underlines Polke’s desire for such a confrontation. What would prevail in the battle for viewers’ attention: current events, as reported in recent Bild coverage, or decade-old paintings, like Freundinnen, in all their period glory, color, and fashion? Could Polke’s art compete with the sensationalism of tabloid culture—could it survive? And was there any future for the art of the present? As Pop art, whether made in the US or in Germany, was beginning to age, Polke, for one, had the guts to confront a question that has become only more pressing today.

Because Polke’s output in the three or four years preceding the show had taken a postpsychedelic turn and lacked the caustic political dimension that Buchloh so admired in the ’60s work, the curator had set the survey’s cutoff date at 1971. But Polke did not want to hide the tensions, fissures, and confrontations within his own oeuvre, and works fresh from the studio were forced into dialogue with much earlier objects. This was most evident in the contrast the artist set up between meticulously wrapped paintings from the ’60s and careless scatterings of recent photographs thrown on the ground or pinned to the gate, as if to spite his greatest champion. Outside the gated space, Polke’s installation shattered the neat if convincing progression that structured Buchloh’s historic exhibition catalogue—“Capitalist Realism, 1963–1969”; “Raster Pictures, 1963–1969”; “Cloth Pictures, 1964–1971”; “Objects, Cloths, 1966–1969”; “Modern Art, 1966–1970”; and the relatively new series “The Ride on the Eight of Infinity, 1971.” By contrast, the artist lined up unexpected, even borderline-random combinations of works that in some cases articulated unexpected correspondences. The puzzling pairing of modernist-autonomous brushstrokes in Streifenbild V (Stripe Picture V), 1968, and Capitalist Realist socks in Socken, 1963, was exemplary in its possibly inadvertent revelation of a shared sensibility—a distinctive awkward elegance uniting Polke’s ’60s paintings. More fundamentally, Polke’s leveling of media and motifs prompted questions: Did value and significance come only with time? Was it a matter of medium, and would Polke’s tinkering with photographic chemicals and processes ever yield the kinds of possibilities that his experiments with painting and found materials had? Was the new and still little-known stuff nearly as good as the increasingly acclaimed canvases that had earned him the honor of a survey in the first place?

WHILE ANY RETROSPECTIVE raises such questions, they were particularly pointed here. The exhibition had actually debuted in the Kunsthalle Tübingen, a four-hour drive from the artist’s studio, with nothing on the floor and nothing wrapped, without any gates or any inscriptions. But Düsseldorf, that was Polke’s turf: It was the place where the people who mattered most would assess his achievements, for better or worse; it was the place where he had created much of the art that was now coming back home, as it were; and it was the place where he still lived and worked, albeit by then on the city’s outskirts, in nearby Willich. So these were questions that Polke asked not only of himself but also of his colleagues, critics, and champions, including Buchloh, and they were as central to the show as the objects themselves; their applicability to his fellow artists’ own practices could hardly have been missed. He was, in some oblique way, asking for a referendum on the art he and the members of his community had been producing—on its very status as art “of the present.”

For Polke, it was perfectly clear that the art of the present would need to resist stasis, closure—tombstones of all kinds—and to that end he used this antiretrospective not only to investigate his oeuvre but to push its logic of accumulation and recombination toward apotheosis. In the early ’60s, Polke had started out with hilariously simplistic graphic apparitions of socks in regimental rows, floating cookies, and ornamental sausages, all set against gapingly empty grounds. Gradually, these grounds became patterned, first painted, then constituted from found fabrics, then both; all the while, his motifs loosened, multiplied, and became layered, dissolved into raster dots or goofy paintings-cum-drawings. Soon paintings began to be integrated into installations, as with the flamingo canvas he incorporated into the version of the 1966 Vitrinenstück (Vitrine Piece) that went on view that year in an exhibition at Galerie Schmela. (This work, a collection of pseudo-documentation in the form of typewritten text, labeled artifacts, and photographs, was also included in the Düsseldorf show.) The artist assimilated twelve paintings into the variable work Die Fünfziger Jahre (The Fifties), 1963–69, where they were mounted on a slipshod lattice construction not unlike the KUNST MACHT FREI gate. In fact, Die Fünfziger Jahre amounted to a miniretrospective in and of itself, as the close of Polke’s first decade as an artist apparently prompted him to identify, declare, and reflect on his interest in the design and imagination of the ’50s reconstruction boom. Having accumulated and recombined not only materials and motifs but also entire finished pieces, he was but a small step from conceiving a retrospective as a dynamic amalgam of past and recent works, intertwined with a new installation that seemed to propose his entire practice as a site of perpetual becoming—always resolving, never resolved.

As the opening of Polke’s new retrospective (which is co-organized by MoMA and Tate Modern) approaches, it’s worth considering the historiography Polke posited in 1976. He appears to have sensed that to “work through the past”—to accomplish this seemingly impossible task without allowing that working-through to deteriorate, following Adorno’s assessment of the first postwar decade, “into its own caricature, an empty and cold forgetting”7—it would be necessary to deploy irony, however inappropriate an ironic treatment of Germany’s recent history might seem. Irony, after all, is not only a theory of meaning but an ethical strategy, a way of reading power against itself. However acrid and outrageous and offensive, Polke’s appropriation of Nazi iconography and language was ironic in this latter sense. It was acrid and outrageous and offensive because if it were otherwise, it would risk perpetuating, rather than destroying, his real target—namely, West Germans’ willful blindness to their past and to the ways that past extended into the present. And indeed, West German denial seems to have been impervious even to Polke’s most extreme gestures. But if the specific content of those gestures was largely the artifact of a particular context, the underlying logic of Polke’s historical project—its logic of becoming—still resonates. As the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel wrote, at a time when a unified Germany was but a nascent concept, irony is “clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos,”a formulation that offers a sharp contrast with the totalitarian rigidity of Nazi aesthetics. Schlegel’s characterization also aptly describes Polke’s attitude toward the past—his nation’s and his own. Even if Polke was unable to pierce the West German armor of repression at the time, his ironic, agile historiography of chaos is a model that persists into the present.

Christine Mehring is chair and professor of art history at the University of Chicago.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh are from three interviews conducted with the author, on, respectively, February 24, 2004, in New York; March 21, 2009, in Los Angeles; and April 3, 2009, in Cambridge, MA, or from a March 5, 2014, e-mail to the author.

2. Primo Levi, The Black Hole of Auschwitz, ed. M. Belpoliti (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 8.

3. Heinz Juncker, “Realität ist ganz anders: Polke in Kunsthalle,” Düsseldorfer Nachrichten, April 22, 1976; Birgit Kölgen, “Kunst am Lattenzaun,” NRZ, April 17–19, 1976.

4. Erhard Klein, conversation with the author, December 2006; Jürgen Harten, conversation with the author, April 28, 2009.

5. “Interview between John Anthony Thwaites and Gerhard Richter, written by Sigmar Polke, October 1964,” in Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961–2007 (New York: d.a.p./Distributed Art Publishers, 2009), 24. Translation modified from the original German: “Interview zwischen Anthony Thwaites und Gerhard Richter, von Sigmar Polke im Oktober 1964 verfasst,” in Gerhard Richter: Text 1961–2007, ed. Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Cologne: Walther König, 2008), 24.

6. Robert Hartmann, “Stillstand bei Pop-Art und Antikunst vordemonstriert: Andy Warhol und Sigmar Polke in der Düsseldorfer Kunsthalle,” Unsere Zeit, April 23, 1976.

7. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” trans. Henry W. Pickford, in Guilt and Defense: On the Legacies of National Socialism in Postwar Germany, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick and Andrew J. Perrin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 222.