Sigmar Polke

West German Pavilion, Biennale

Sigmar Polke’s installation in the West German Pavilion was experimental in the truest sense of the word. The title of the project—“Athanor,” the alchemist’s kiln—indicated its alchemic thesis. However, the radical character of Polke’s undertaking sharply distinguished it from the casual treatment of this theme in the Biennale exhibit “Arte e Alchimia” (Art and alchemy). Polke’s alchemic art has little to do with the systematic pursuit of a hermetic science; it is meant, rather, as a metaphor for a way of understanding reality that is truly receptive and hospitable to the unknown. The goal of his alchemy, as Dierk Stemmler put it in the catalogue, is to "conjure forth the human species . . . through vast stretches of time and space, using reagents that work from afar and utopias of color.”

The installation’s dramatic tension was initiated by two “art objects” borrowed from nature, a meteorite weighing about 1,000 pounds and an enormous rock crystal, which evoked the evolutionary movements of the earth and the cosmos through epochs spanning millions of years. Polke gave us some sense of this unfathomable continuum by creating images that possessed the quality of being in process. A semicircular niche surmounted by a half dome in the central room of the pavilion, for instance, was painted with a cobalt chloride pigment, creating a mural whose dominant red and blue tones were subject to constant change in response to the variable humidity and light in the room. It was not so much a painting in the customary sense as an unending sequence of changing pictures. The mural was framed by six enormous “Lackbildern” (Lacquer paintings, 1986) in brown tones, beneath whose shiny surfaces apparently still-fluid clumps of pigment appeared to be encased, as if in amber. These monumental images dissolved the room into a play of reflections, and, almost as if by chance, undercut the pathos of the pavilion’s mock–Greek revival architecture.

Of particular note in the rooms off the central hall were the “Schleifenbilder” (Ribbon paintings, 1986), the basis for which were the ornamental flourishes associated with the Virtues in Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Triumphwagen des Kaisers Maximilian (Kaiser Maximilian’s triumphal carriage, 1518–22). Our fascination with these paintings was rooted not only in their recourse to these obscure ornamental figurations but also in the way they were painted, using graphite and silver oxide, a chemical reagent that would eventually alter in color. Once again, these were paintings that contained the seed of their own transformation over time. Next to these pictures were others based on “natural” pigments: cobalt chloride, azurite, malachite, red and yellow orpiment—organic and mineral pigments with their own particular auras. But Polke made it clear that he hadn’t floated off into esoterica with his devotion to the transformational potential of alchemy. For with his radical experiments in the field of painting and with his persistent bursting of the frame of art, he called not only himself as an artist into question but also the state of the world. And all is not well with the world, as the title of one of the “Rasterbilder” (Grid paintings, 1985) showed, and not without wit: Neid and Habgier II (Zwei Hunde und ein Knochen kommen nicht leicht zu einer Einigung) (Envy and Avarice II [Two dogs and one bone don’t have an easy time of it coming to an agreement]).

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.