New York

Sigmar Polke

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

The key to these works, which continue the Albrecht Dürer series of paintings Polke exhibited at the Venice Biennale, is the use of design motifs quoted from Dürer’s Gebetbuch Maximilian I (Prayer book of [Emperor] Maximilian I, 1512—13, also known as the “Last Knight”): two of Polke’s works are titled Gebetbuch Maximilian, and one is titled Schleife—Gebetbuch Maximilian (Bow—prayer book of Maximilian, all 1986). As Erwin Panofsky points out in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, the Gebetbuch is ironical in character: it is “a printed book creating the illusion of a handwritten and hand-decorated Livre d’Heures, or. . .an apparently handwritten and hand-decorated Livre d’Heures produced by the printing press.” It “symbolized to perfection the tastes and aspirations of a prince engrossed in the past, yet keenly interested in every invention and device of modern technics.” Polke also is such a prince, and in his use of a Dürer quotation as a kind of repoussoir device in his abstract/decorative paintings—a finite design that at once implies infinitely extensible movement and brings out the atmospheric/painterly intimacy that surrounds it—he shows himself to be the most imperial of all the German art princes. It is the ultimate one-upmanship, a finessing of the current international culture of quotation and of the current use of Germanic culture in German art. Polke quotes Dürer’s abstract designs rather than his equally brilliant imagery—a further one-upmanship amid an image-obsessed scene.

The Dürer designs are fraught with meaning in and of themselves, and to quote them in contemporary Germany is meaningful—even symbolic. The Gebetbuch belongs to Dürer’s “decorative style,” as it has been called. The linear designs Polke chose have been considered by some scholars to be the ultimate ideographic forms, manifestly esoteric but latently communicative—universally expressive and comprehensive on an unconscious level. The ornamental pattern in the Gebetbuch images is the ultimate ideographic statement—the most concentrated language possible, presenting “difficult” meanings in concentrated form.

For Polke, the most difficult meaning is Germany; in quoting the Dürer designs—esoteric emblems of Germanic fervor and complexity—he not only shows a subtle erudition (the best quotation art involves a learned preoccupation with arcana; it is in essence a revival of emblem art) but also a daring assertiveness. By means of “post-Modern” quotations, he displaces the swastika, with which modern Germany will perhaps always be associated, with a form—created by perhaps its greatest artist—that can be read as symbolic of “ancient” Germany at its moment of greatest artistic achievement. Dürer, the German Renaissance artist, fusing a Northern sense of concreteness with an Italian sense of harmony—as the truthful textbook cliché goes—is made to symbolize the current renaissance in German art, and the renewed power (if only on a cultural level) of Germany in general. Polke may even want to assert, in a reparative effort, that the German soldiers of World War II were the “last knights”—Maximilians all. Polke’s use of the Dürer designs is a bold esoteric assertion of Germanness at a time when it remains “problematic.”

Esthetically, Polke has created some of the most powerful gestural art around, showing a daring virtuosity of touch, ranging from superficially slapdash strokes to the manicured scumbled look of soft surface associated with Mark Rothko. His new works, in which he has come more fully into his own than ever, are a brilliant—sometimes farcical—recapitulation of the modern tradition of surface. He has, as it were, brought a German sense of concreteness—sometimes, as in Never Seen, Spirale (Spiral), and Filzschleife (Felt bow, all 1986), falling just short of almost vulgar harshness—to bear on the American gestural/field-surface accomplishment, reappropriating it for Europe, as it were.

He has also created a kind of “zero-degree art,” a term more apt than “antiart.” Polke is not against art; rather, he is interested in regressing to the zone between art and not-art, the zone in which not-art seems to beg to become art and art seems to slum in not-art. In this zone, art seems eternally young—forever after a fresh start. It is really a zone of fantasy—which is exactly what Panofsky thought Dürer’s ornamental decorations for the Gebetbuch finally amounted to: a fantasy of art as a zone of totally free activity, that is, activity unconditioned by anything but its own impulses. We come back to the fact that Polke is handmaking a found design, manufactured in book form—synthesizing the reproduced and the produced, showing production to be a form of reproduction and vice versa. Without that uncanny sense of doubleness, which Polke so brilliantly achieves, the post-Modernist effort becomes a dumb capitulation to the age of mechanical reproduction. Polke is one of the great post-Modernist masters because of his ability to make the achievements of the past seem like present aspirations, and the tackiness of the present seem like an archaic touchiness. Yet he seems to prefer the past, with its intactness—conveyed through Dürer’s complex integration of various linear forms in a single rhythm—to the present, with its murky, muddy inarticulateness, as represented by the gesture. Is it that today’s art is background for yesterday’s art, rather than vice versa? Is it a way of refocusing an Old Master art we have forgotten yet inwardly know is better than the art of the Modern masters? Is Polke suggesting that it is time to recognize the difficulty of being a master, old or new? The apparent physical facility of Polke’s art is conceptual and emotional antifacility.

Donald Kuspit