New York

Sigmar Polke

When Holly Solomon presented Sigmar Polke’s first one-person show in America in 1982, his career had already spanned two decades. Subsequent exhibitions here have failed to catch up or to keep pace with his chameleon fluctuations in style and iconography, or to illuminate the various conceptual strategies he employs. The current retrospective of paintings, watercolors, and drawings, originating in San Francisco and slated for a yearlong tour, attempts to right this situation; unfortunately, it tells only half the story. Paradoxically, we are back to introductions with this exhibition at the Michael Werner gallery of Polke’s objects, photographs, prints, drawings, constructions, and assorted ephemera from the ’60s. With the exception of his mechanical multiple, Kartoffelmaschine (Potato machine, 1969), none of this work has even been shown in the U.S.

According to his infamous claim, Polke first received the “command of higher beings” in 1966, and his obsession with extrasensory perception, parapsychological phenomena, and occultism animates this magical mystery tour of his eccentric cosmology. Selections from the print portfolio of 1968, Höhere Wesen befehlen (Higher beings command), including an image of Polke dressed as a coconut palm tree, along with one of a glove, palm-side-up, make icono-biographical puns (as he put it, “Palmin-Palme-Polke-Prometheus”) that combine references to exoticism, commodification (the palm tree as commercial resource), palmistry, and the artist as titan. Published concurrently, a portfolio of photographs includes an image of scissors hovering above a glass of water (which appears in subsequent paintings) suggested by a 1920 photograph documenting a Polish medium’s powers of levitation.

Assuming the role of medium himself, Polke conducts his own telepathic experiments. Telepathische Sitzung I, Max Klinger-Sigmar Polke (Telepathic seance I, 1968) and Telepathische Sitzung II, William Blake-Sigmar Polke (Telepathic seance II, 1968–69) from the same year as that of Robert Barry’s Psychic Series, are concerned with transmitting and receiving messages from beyond; these works document the results of communications with Max Klinger and William Blake in a quasi-scientific manner. Each piece is composed of a pair of hand-painted grids partially filled in with the words “Ja” and “Nein” and labeled at the bottom with the name of sender or receiver. Lengths of rough twine strung between the two grids connect selected coordinate points, but the statistical information presented is unintelligible or insignificant. Polke’s play is at the expense of both conceptualism’s informational conceit and of art that posits unintelligibility as expression. His straw men are rationalism and metaphysics, and he knocks each down in one shot.

As the instrument of higher beings, Polke acknowledges the magical possibilities of art on the one hand, and parodies its pretensions on the other. In Wiederbelebungsversuch an Bambusstangen (Attempt at resuscitation of bamboo canes, 1967), several old bamboo poles standing in a plastic tub partially filled with water constitute a deadpan parody of the artist’s ability to bring the dead back to life. Polke performs his acts of rejuvenation like a magician who never quite succeeds, but who also never loses hope; there is always an unfinished quality about these works—a condition that extends to the narcissistic pursuits of the artist himself who seems to have completed all the paperwork for induction into the hall of higher beings without quite attaining admittance.

In a collaged ballpoint-pen drawing entitled Konstruktionen um Leonardo da Vinci und Sigmar Polke (Constructions around Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmar Polke, 1969), he laboriously maps parallels between his life and that of Leonardo da Vinci. In Fotokreis/Menschenkreis (Photo circle/circle of men, 1968–69), his self-portrait serves as messianic hub to a wheel of anthropological photographs of primitive men, each of which is connected to the center by a cord spoke. If the self-importance of the artist is under attack, so too is the viewpoint that artmaking can be fully explained as a signifying code or historical formation. Pappologie, 1968, for example, a mock portrait gallery of blank rectangular pieces of cardboard, makes a play on words, equating the study of fathers (pappa-logy) with the study of cardboard (in German,“Pappe”), and it’s perfectly plausible that Polke is gently spoofing his artistic “father,” Joseph Beuys, whose voice comes through loud and clear in the “potatological” pieces.

Polke thematizes the dilemma facing German art during the ’60s and the search for new paths: the “cosmonautical” idealism of Group Zero; the belief in the “total freedom” of the artist espoused by his collaborator in Capitalist Realism, Gerhard Richter; the preoccupations with repentance and redemption in born again Romanticism; and the blatant materialism of Pop art. Underlying his humorous critique of the mystification of art, which takes ample cues from Fluxus, is his faith in art’s ability to sustain multiple levels of consciousness and to accommodate the unconscious. As is entirely fitting for an artist such as Polke, the roots of his profound conviction are to be found in these wonderfully absurd artifacts wherein, in his words, “the monkeys” got into his work.

Jan Avgikos