Sigmar Polke

“Many colored things arranged next to one another produce a series of many colored things,” according to Lawrence Weiner. If taken with a grain of salt, this statement can be applied to Sigmar Polke’s work. With over 400 works, this exhibition was the most comprehensive to date for the artist. There is no uniformity in Polke’s oeuvre, which prevented the show from becoming a typical retrospective, in which the viewer is offered an accessible presentation. Polke is fully aware of the mummifying effect of such surveys, and he scattered new and completely unknown paintings throughout the museum just before the opening in order to cancel out the basic notion of a retrospective. Ultimately—and this may be encouraged by the cabinetlike architecture of this museum—two series of works emerged, but there was no overall chronological order. Because of the strategy of both the work and this exhibition, Polke’s work escaped the limitations of categorical pigeonholing.

Polke’s art displays an ever-changing pictorial inventiveness: it is all-inclusive. During the ’60s Polke often linked his art to the esthetics of advertising and its use of verbal clichés, as in Unser Fenster-Putzwunder (Our window-cleaning miracle, 1969), in which the face of Christ appears miraculously, illuminating the banal act of window cleaning. If the use of clichéd language is exposed here, then Polke can also deal humorously with the theme of man and woman, in the form of a cliché: Reihe Duo (Duo series, 1966), is a pair of paintings that looks like a topography of everyday human relationships—one finds the adored woman, the fool, the boss with the too-young mistress, the betrayed wife, etc.

While employing the technique of silkscreening, Polke simultaneously uncovers the ornamental character of the dots, and releases them from their compositional order. He registers the living room and the palm-lined beach as complementary locales of bourgeois comfort. With his discovery of exoticism in the ’70s (for example in Baumhütte [Tree hut], and Neuguinea [New Guinea], both 1976), he finds new uses for all the various alienation devices that have accompanied his work from the outset.

As much as the entanglements of ideology, everyday life, the media, and the things taken for granted in culture become themes in Polke’s work, they represent only one side of the artist’s oeuvre. His drawings and sketchbooks reveal a second essential element of his creativity, the game of scribbling across an empty surface with a pencil or brush, and allowing forms to emerge almost automatically. Ornamental structures sometimes verge on becoming figurative without giving up their playful character. Polke employed this method very early in his career, and more recently it has proven an experimental strategy, as one can see in the sketchbooks. These may be the most astonishing aspects of this exhibition: we see that the drawings and sketchbooks have nearly always remained the primary sphere of pictorial invention, so much so that the large-scale paintings can often be considered an expanded act of translation. In his handling of sketches, Polke turns out to be a true classical master, for whom the bozzetto (sketch) is an absolute beginning.

Martin Hentschel

Translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel.