Sigmar Polke

Boymans van Beuningen Museum

“Semiconceptual tautologists . . . industrious church painters,” who produce “painting for clever blind men and others who can see as little as they can think”—so did Sigmar Polke, in 1976, describe those he felt were his opposites. At that time he was still having to fight the champions of a concrete, anti-illusionistic art. Now, eight years later, the tide has turned in his favor, and a wider public can see how this artist, born in 1941, was the precursor of many contemporary painters. At the same time it has become clear what a difference in quality there is between him and many of the newcomers.

Of course Polke has not gone unnoticed over the last twenty years; until now, however, his work was never an unequivocal success. Remarkably, this exhibition broke that pattern, arousing great fascination as well as a much-heard complaint that it was impossible to remember all the paintings—proof positive of the intricate, partly non-image-oriented character of Polke’s work.

Most of the approximately 80 paintings on view were from the last three years, along with a good number from the years 1964–65 and 1968–69. Differences between the periods included not only the size of the paintings—many of the new works measure as much as 6 by 13 feet—but above all their atmosphere. Polke has been fond of using mauve and canvas colors in the past, and of playing around with screens used in reproduction, but now, while retaining these elements, he has achieved a virtuosity in his handling of color and paint not to be found in any of his early works. He applies layer on layer of dripping oils and lacquers, adding his glazes like an old master, while at the same time making use of chance spillages and freely allowing images to appear, now of a patchy bit of wall, now of a Chinese mountain landscape. Chance also plays a part in the associative effect of the compositions; it is as if Polke, as the first spectator of his wizardry, sees signs emerging under his hands that make him think of new forms. In Paganini, 1982, for example, Death in the guise of a jester tosses up reels of tape with one hand and catches them, transformed into skulls, with the other.

The deliriousness of Polke’s paintings is underlined by titles like Halucinogen, Opium Raucher (Opium smoker), and Alice in Wonderland, all 1983. This last painting shows Alice and the (blue) hookah-smoking caterpillar who tells her that the mushroom will determine her transformations. In Polke’s most recent works it is color itself that undergoes transformation, without any need for further anecdote: the remarkable purples, which continually seem to fade as the viewer looks from farther away, and which seem to have gold as their complementary color, lead a life of their own. Transformation is a key concept: like the chameleon or the flatfish, Polke’s motifs adapt themselves to the wallpaper or cloth to which they are applied.

In light of all this, it is not surprising that as early as 1963 Polke made drawings entitled “Shirts in All Colors,” after Francis Picabia’s adage of “changing styles as one changes shirts.” Seeing these works, along with a series of little kitsch drawings of laughing women called “Saturday Night Club,” from the same period, reduces the recent wave of interest in Picabia to a quirk of fashion, and once more reveals that Polke, after a period of withdrawal in the ’70s, must be reckoned a master.

Saskia Bos

Translated from the Dutch by Patricia Wardle.