New York

Sigmar Polke

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Sigmar Polke’s work has surfaced here somewhat too belatedly for us to get a clear view of his conceptual strategies unimpeded by the work of his imitators, the recently arrived late Francis Picabias, and the homogenization that the gallery has effected on all these artists. Polke himself seems to have participated in trans-Atlantic Ping-Pong for the past twenty years, and the work remains based in a loose collage of image and materials that we associate with both the sociopolitical strategies of Dada and with the stylistic maneuvers of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Nevertheless, we are encountering a sensibility that is not American, and should consider whether some of the uncanniness of Polke’s work may reflect a certain cultural estrangement.

It may be difficult for us now to imagine how the sudden influx of American wealth and consumerism affected the psyche of a postwar Europe stricken with dispossessed populations and real material hardship, and in which ideological conflicts were—and still are—lived out, and not simply a matter of intellectual rhetoric. We should be cautious, therefore, about confusing the ironic tropes in Polke’s work with the current hip cynicism that empties truth, or value, from everything, leaving only posture and style—an attitude that is possible to hold only if one is already in a position of privilege. We might consider, also, that the borrowing of American styles and motifs by European Pop artists was as much a reflection of a fantasized notion of American culture as were the films of the French New Wave, which were responses to the fascination with Hollywood movies which the war had withheld from European audiences. In other words, the concept of American life derived from its images, synthetic materials, and design until comparatively recently still represented a sense of freedom for peoples whose own cultures had lost their centers.

Polke’s work now seems, however, symptomatic of the change in European consciousness that we have been witnessing in recent years: a self-assertiveness no longer enamored of the American dream, and desiring to reclaim its own identity. The pall of deathliness that clung to the recent selection of his work nevertheless suggested an irremediable loss. Integrity cannot be recuperated either by neo-Expressionism’s nostalgia for a mythic past, for this is heavily implicated in the ideology that produced the concentration camp (Lager [Camp, 1982]; Hochstand [Highstanding, 1984]), or by a deceiving American paternalism. The smiling face that Reagan holds up to the Europeans (in Reagan 1–3/Das Problem Europa/Sargdeckel [Reagan 1–3/The Europe problem/Coffin Lid, 1980]) melts into a death mask across fading motifs of the Wild West, and ends up as a thermonuclear obfuscation. Faced with the mortality predicted by the vanitas (candle and footprint), Europe is reduced to a decorative ornament and its utopianism to a pastiche of its abstract art. The coffin lid waits to nail down the remains.

Culture itself provides no solutions. In Die Lebenden stinken und die Toten sind nicht anwesend (The living stink and the dead are not present, 1983) both the high art of Gauguin and kitsch elephants are homogenized into the repetitiveness of fabric designs. Stained and blotted as if with age and misuse, they are overdrawn with the generic smile of another paternalistic figure and with a sequence of numerical boxes reiterating the capitalist’s and the politician’s fondness for euphemistic phrases borrowed from medical terminology: cure (Heilung) and recovery (Besserung). Like painting, however, the old social body has already suffered a terminal disease and decayed, and whatever auratic residue remains, it is now that of a shroud.

Jean Fisher