New York

Sigmar Polke

If, for purposes of discussion, Long may be a con artist, Sigmar Polke is a criminal investigator, relentlessly juxtaposing “eyewitness” accounts. Confronted with a blatant sex bomb, a realtor sees only commerce and offers her and her mate an igloo to house her emphatic curves (Igloo, 1983). The “painting” of skyscrapers behind him demonstrates that he understands a different version of passion. In what might be taken for a companion piece, Untitled, 1983, another middle-aged, balding man prefers the lure of sex to the tame real estate of a painted landscape he attempts to hang. A pun on arousal, the painting will not stay up. Art fails; in a sense, sex fails, since all the events take place in the bottom half of the canvas—everything seeks its lowest level. In each of these cartoons the paintings-within-paintings themselves make a complicated allegory. Igloo’s painting of skyscrapers is cherished because it represents the loved object, power, but as a trophy it has no power in itself. In Untitled, the “art” is as clichéd as the sex, but the figure’s reaction to the naked woman seen through a window is an acting out of the profound fusion of libido and distance that is the “esthetic” draw of the traditional framed nude.

We really never see, claims Polke; instead we project, we construe. The world is a collection of Rorschach blots. In Positive Water Drops, 1983, it’s a film strip of neutral “drops,” positively charged by our hapless construction as skulls, mouths, hands, and ending with what seems a wishbone—to stigmatize our free-associating as mere wishful thinking, perhaps. It’s not that Polke rejects empiricism, but that he is skeptical of it, and equally skeptical of skepticism. The way the frames of his canvases stop short on one side while overshooting another, or bracket only the corners, is key. The desire for closure and certainty is not really denied, just checked. All possibilities must be explored, so framing variations run the gamut, and paintings are frequently worked on from every angle until a full 360-degree turn is achieved. One might see Polke, the investigator, as committed to a doomed search for the real or the true; his procedural habit of laying painterly variations over a diptychal fabric surface reflects a need for restless permutation revolving on an unchanging base.

Polke tries to hold onto meaning by holding onto binary differences, often expressed as male and female, yet he is too upright to let them go uninterrogated. The result can be a nightmare of collapsing boundaries. In I Can’t Stand It Anymore, 1983–84, what should be sui generis begins to repeat itself frighteningly. Cognition is like visual perception—a perfect tautology, a metaphysical conundrum. Candle before the Mirror, 1983, a kind of retelling of Plato’s allegory of the cave, shows an eye perceiving the mirror image of a candle rather than the candle itself, the mere reflection rather than the ideal form; meanwhile, numerous circumstances within the painting challenge the notion of an unchanging reality, and raise questions about the source of vision. Is it the eye or is it light, and, if light, is it light refracted or direct? Painted lines of sight form a closed circuit from eye to reflected candle to actual candle (or vice versa). Also, the inclusion of multiple viewpoints furthers relativity: we see the eye in profile; it sees the candle at a different place in the mirror than we do (Polke indicates the eye’s line of sight as stopping dead center, but actually depicts the reflected candle to the left, since he has placed the viewer to one side of the mirror). Looming large on top of all this is a second eye which stares out at us directly and unflinchingly; finally, dots and circles blanket all, in one more of Polke’s endless scrims and screens. Seeing spots before our eyes, says he, we are creatures bedazzled, and therefore unreliable.

Jeanne Silverthorne