the films of Sigmar Polke

GREAT FILM INSTALLATIONSDouglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, say, or Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010—use the fact of motion pictures to hypostatize time. Lesser ones raise questions about narrative and intention. The 16-mm films and extended segments of 16-mm footage incorporated into the Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective of Sigmar Polke’s work do both.

Not that they were ever intended to bear as much weight—or scrutiny—as the spectacular orchestrations of images cited above. Did an erudite, fecund trickster like Polke ever mean for any of his footage to really be watched rather than briefly pondered as it flickered on a gallery wall amid his other work? Does it even matter? The films are indifferent, and my guess is that the filmmaker was too.

According to Barbara Engelbach’s essay in MoMA’s massive catalogue Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, Polke carried a camera with him constantly for decades and shot hours upon hours of film, documenting whatever came to hand (or into his head): performances, friends, artworks, excursions, TV news. However, this “collection of footage,” as Engelbach calls it, was only transformed into a movie when needed for an exhibition, where it would serve as a raucous sound-and-image-delivery system complementing the artist’s wildly disparate and generally bewildering oeuvre of paintings, collages, works on paper, photographs, and sculptures.

Ranging in length from thirty to forty-six minutes, five such finished “products” (Engelbach’s term) were shown in Polke’s lifetime: Der ganze Körper fühlt sich leicht und möchte fliegen . . . (The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly . . . , 1969), How Long We Are Hesst/Looser (ca. 1973–76), Quetta’s blauer dunstiger Himmel/Afghanistan–Pakistan (Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan–Pakistan, ca. 1974–76), Auf der Suche nach Bohr-mann Brasilien und seine Folgen/Brasilien-São Paulo (In Search of Bohr-mann Brazil and Its Consquences/São Paulo, ca. 1975–76), and HFBK II/Hamburg Lerchenfeld (ca. 1975–89/2009). One notes with interest that, described in the catalogue as “film transferred to video” (perhaps specifically for MoMA’s exhibition), these works reside in private collections rather than in film archives: Are they precious objects, limited editions, souvenirs? The last of the five, HFBK II, was not screened publicly until Polke’s final exhibition, in Hamburg; the first, a collaboration with Christof Kohlhöfer, was created for a group show in 1969 at the Museum Morsbroich outside Cologne, but it was also exhibited in 1970–71 (as Polke-Film) under the auspices of XSCREEN, a group created by Cologne’s preeminent underground filmmakers, Birgit and Wilhelm Hein.

Painters who turned to film in 1966, the Heins provide a useful context for Polke’s work. Their hilariously crude “structuralist/materialist” films are characterized by a comic combination of hearty literalism and casual production values. Rohfilm, which the couple produced in 1968 (a year before Polke-Film), was pure schmutz: The filmmakers’ methodology involved gluing “dirt, hair, ashes, tobacco, fragments of cinematic images, sprocket holes, and perforated tape” onto clear celluloid, as Birgit Hein later explained. Polke’s films are also material objects that may be even more provocative than those of the Heins precisely because they are less confrontational. Their mode is passive-aggressive.

Conceptual rather than perceptual, more boring than assaultive, diffident not strident, The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly is a desultory anthology of notions offering a formless succession of quasi-scientific filmed experiments—silvery cups spinning on a carpet, an outsize contraption in perpetual motion that might have been designed to shine shoes, a saucer of water being dumped on a chair cushion ad infinitum. It’s also a pretty funny portrait of the artist as a young goofball sticking a rubber squeegee into his mouth, standing in a basin of water with cucumbers floating around his ankles, scratching himself, and staring dumbfounded into the camera even as he mimics, arms extended, Leonardo’s symmetrical Vitruvian Man. Although most of the movie is accompanied by belted-out ballads from a 1961 Brenda Lee LP, Polke’s performances are underscored by Chet Baker’s near-definitive version of “My Funny Valentine” and the ridiculously heartfelt mid-’50s Tony Bennett anthem “I Am.”

Even more casual and narcissistic is How Long We Are Hesst/Looser, a solo effort from the mid-’70s. Polke pretends to jerk off and poses with props of various sorts, but the best getup—a penis nose and vampire teeth—is donned by his friend Peter Saunders. In between footage of politicians and talk-show roundtables on de-Nazification filmed off the TV, Polke and a female accomplice (often seen playing with a plastic skeleton hand) clown around at a kitchen table. Most of the sound track is supplied by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, a performance presumably taped in a club during their 1972 West German tour. Polke’s indifference to craft is exemplified by the use of superimposed images (which, seemingly created at random, are vastly less fastidious than those found in his graphic work). Engelbach compares this singularly lackadaisical effect to Stan Brakhage’s use of densely layered multiple images; it rather appears closer to the double exposures found in the mid-’60s 8-mm films tossed off by poet Piero Heliczer, “the King of ‘I don’t give a shit cinema,’” as the film artist-archivist Andrew Lampert recently described him.

Anything goes. Like Heliczer’s, Polke’s haphazard depth of field, spastic camera moves, and glamorously self-absorbed style are echt High ’60s (even if the work was produced in the Hungover ’70s). Indeed, Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky is out-and-out hippie art—a road film in the well-established tradition of Ron Rice’s Senseless (1962) and Bruce Conner’s Looking for Mushrooms (1967), not to mention Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Accompanied by a Grateful Dead jam, this observational romp through Afghanistan and western Pakistan feasts on decorated buses, zonked-out hash smokers, and a miserable-looking performing monkey; it ends by panning around and not quite focusing on a staged fight between a dog and a bear.

A New Left rather than New Age travelogue, In Search of Bohr-mann Brazil and Its Consequences refers in its title to the widespread legend that Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, escaped to South America, and uses the occasion of the 1975 São Paulo Bienal to present Polke and his buddy Blinky Palermo, both of whom had pieces in the show, goofing on the curator and the museum director and generally cutting up—in the museum, on the street, and elsewhere. (There’s a murky sex scene that turns out to be nothing more than footage of a nude woman playing with her dog.) Meanwhile, two female voices are heard reading graphic accounts of exploitation, repression, and Gestapo-like state terror, excerpted from the German edition of A Grain of Mustard Seed: The Awakening of the Brazilian Revolution, a 1972 tract by exiled left-wing journalist Márcio Moreira Alves. The result is oppressively heavy-handed, but one can scarcely fault the movie—for that would seem to be its point.

The last of Polke’s “finished film products,” HFBK II is in some ways the weakest, largely as a consequence of its being both the longest and the most edited. Here, casualness is a construct. An inadvertent parody of Jonas Mekas’s epic diary films, HFBK II is at first set mainly in the artist’s studio, with friends sitting around smoking cigarettes, swilling beer, and futzing about with stray pieces of sculpture. The sound track is a combination of off-speed chants and miscellaneous mutterings. Later, the action moves outside to the street and the countryside, where Polke and his cohort stick out their tongues, lie on the grass, and skinny-dip. Finally, members of the same crew are seen wandering around a university campus where art students are found lining up with their portfolios, poor fools.

As the film critic Andrew Sarris used to say of minor auteurist movies, these five films are of interest only to specialists. Paradoxically, to judge from the two that I’ve seen, Polke’s private (or, at least, hitherto unexhibited) works are far better than his finished products—in part because they are uncluttered with ideas or sound tracks. Lightly edited, Papua (1980–81) is a relatively straightforward thirty-minute series of visual notes made on a trip to New Guinea. Polke documents his hotel’s half-heartedly exotic facade and nondescript parking lot, the Rolling Stones’ incongruous appearance on his hotel-room TV, and his friends and female companion hanging out by the pool. Most of the movie is devoted to an outdoor performance in which costumed natives dance for (and with) tourists. Polke cuts between this and another spectacle: scores of people combining their efforts to pull a tractor out of the mud. There are also a few shots in which a small plane lands and some close-ups of the unremarkable Papuan earth. (According to the catalogue, Polke spent weeks, in a subsequent lap of the trip, studying the geology of northern Australia.)

This sense of the filmmaker’s fascination with specific material is even more pronounced in another of the movies MoMA has categorized as “previously unseen,” but which has, apparently, been exhibited (in Barcelona in 2000, though perhaps in an earlier form): Farbe (Color, ca. 1986–92). Indeed, this hour-long assemblage of 16-mm camera rolls, shot during a period in which Polke was working on a series of large monochrome paintings, is, by comparison with his other films, a masterpiece. Working mainly in close-up, Polke examines mounds of pigment while variously adding water, changing the camera’s f-stop, and vibrating the canvas to induce subtle (or drastic) changes. You might say that he is illustrating Goethe’s assertion that “yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; blue is a darkness weakened by light.” Or you might not. For all its alchemical references, Color is in fact the least literary and most material of Polke’s films.

Color is both an exercise and an experiment in representation. There are almost no establishing shots. (One of the few shows a brown painting in the context of the artist’s studio.) Color creates its own context—as, for example, in the form of a bright yellow plastic drop cloth. Twice the artist merges with his work: first,when he appears in a red tank top and gym shorts, standing over and pretending to dab paint on a red canvas lying flat on a trestle table. Later, Polke’s presence is rendered visible when his shadow, melded, significantly, with that of the camera, falls on (and changes the color of) a yellow-ocher or burnt-sienna field.

Although the mode is impressionistic rather than structural, Color is a work of great purity. The outside world is referenced only when Polke cuts from a pile of green pigment to a shot of pine trees and then to a close-up of lichen in the rain. What is the nature of paint? Or the power of creation? Every canvas comes to seem a landscape, dotted with tiny stones and pools of water. Here Polke’s sole desire is to see what certain things look like on film. Self-contained and truly indifferent, this non-product film piece is successful as installation and as motion picture, as art, non-art, and nothing at all.

“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” organized by Kathy Halbreich with Mark Godfrey and Lanka Tattersall, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through August 3.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.