Sigmar Polke

The essential point to be made about Sigmar Polke—his extraordinary and enduring relevance—has been apparent for two decades in this country and for at least ten years longer in Europe. Indeed, were it not for his singularity and long-held stance of flamboyant apartness, one might say that he has been jostling with his old friend Gerhard Richter for center-stage in the Beuysian afterglow since around 1963, when both were students at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, where the mythic master presided. That was the year that Polke, Richter, and Konrad Lueg (another student at the academy, who would later be known as the art dealer Konrad Fischer) started something they called Kapitalistischer Realismus, or “Capitalist Realism,” a movement that by all evidence seems to have been more of a remonstrance than a salute to the shamanistic-holistic conceits of the war-traumatized Herr Professor Honeypot-mit-sled.

Urban, caustic, preoccupied by actualities and appearances rather than by atavisms and interiority, Capitalist Realism was a cold-war hybrid from the two Germanies, animated by artists born during, not before, World War II. For Polke, who had moved from East to West in 1953 at the age of twelve, the engagement with image and substance lampooned as well as celebrated in his many early depictions of products and consumers amounted to nothing less than a crucible.

Gathered together for the enormous Polke retrospective in Bonn this past summer (and in Berlin this fall), those paintings from 1962–67 of chocolate bars, sausage eaters, doughnuts (Berliner in German as in JFK’s immortal gaffe “ich bin ein . . . ”), palm trees, Playboy Bunnies, newsprint photos, and brand-new store-bought socks suggested a school-of-hard-knocks kind of Pop, more Maria Braun than Marilyn Monroe. Polke had already seen and been mobilized by the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. Yet his own early endeavors perhaps more closely resemble those of certain other Americans who were for the most part unfamiliar to him at that time—artists who, whether for reasons of deep idiosyncrasy or geographic location, were as far from the New York center as he was. Polke’s mid-’60’s grisaille portraits of furniture, domestic interiors, and building exteriors, “screened” by hand-painted rasters of dots, reminded me more of Richard Artschwager’s early work, for instance, than of Lichtenstein’s; and his many palmy landscapes, pinup girls, and edible goods seemed Californian, almost—as if some improbable Germanicized mix of Billy Al Bengston, Edward Ruscha, and Wayne Thiebaud.

Pop motifs became less of a constant in Polke’s work once he finally left the Düsseldorf academy after six years, in 1967, and entered into a phase of heightened and diversified responses to other contemporary idioms, including Minimal and Conceptual art. The Beuysian influence had already resurfaced in some late student-period works like Vitrinenstück (Showcase piece), a mixed-media installation from 1966, and it was variously exploited, spoofed, and hybridized in slightly later pieces such as Kartoffelhaus (Potato house, 1967), with its gridded structure; or one from 1968 titled Attempted Resuscitation of Bamboo Poles, with its note of aggressive derision; or, from 1969, Apparatus for One Potato to Orbit Another, with its goofy Fluxus overtones. Two other nonpaintings from 1968, Polkes Peitsche (Polke’s whip) and Fotokreis (Menschenkreis) I [Photo circle (people circle) I], seem in a fairly straightforward manner to be participating in the photo-diaristic zeitgeist that was sweeping up artists ranging from Vito Acconci to Lucas Samaras to Hanne Darboven, while two paintings on thick blankets from the same year appear simultaneously to be jousting with Beuys and Robert Morris, even as their creator seems to be reveling, from within their surfaces, in the sheer physicality of his own thrusts.

Modernism itself—up to and including mainstream Pop—seems to have been on Polke’s hit list by the late ’60s. A rather good little abstraction, for instance, from 1968, featuring the summary and nullifying caption Moderne Kunst (Modern art), along with a number of other works from that year, including an expertly dispatched Mondrian-Lichtenstein equation called Konstruktivistisch (Constructivist), the whimsically disdainful Carl Andre in Delft (a gridded pattern of Dutch tiles painted on fabric), and the Pop Mannerist Parfümbild (Perfume painting, 1969–71), with its brand-name logos (Baccarat, Cartier, Christian Dior, etc.), suggest an insurrection against all precedents. They also seemed quite startlingly to foretell the ’80s and early ’90s and stratagems of appropriation by such disparate artists as Sherrie Levine, Wim Delvoye, and even Sylvie Fleury.

Indeed, the year 1968 denotes for Polke a sort of personal rather than collective and generational revolution, one that seems in retrospect to have been at once reactionary, if you will, and progressive. While many of his contemporaries in Europe and the US were jettisoning traditional forms of art, Polke embraced painting with a jealousy and a fervor that defied all limiting, husbanding conventions of the day—serialism for example. It is as if Polke, furthermore, had decided to subsume everything that had attracted him to alternative methods of making art—organic and chemical materials, chance and changeability—into the historically resonant, two-dimensional format of painting. He spent the next ten years under laboratory-like conditions, developing an arsenal of glittering, sulfurous, metamorphosing substances through which to channel vitality itself, and somehow transfer it to a surface.

The social spirit of Germany in the ’70s is best conveyed through the films of Fassbinder, Wenders, et al., and (with exceptions such as Jörg Immendorff’s “Cafe Deutschland” series) not so much through painting. Polke’s work from that period is on the whole dandyish and vaguely occult—or “alchemical,” as is so often said—in feeling. Superficially, many of his ’70s paintings look a bit like work by Robert Kushner and Kim MacConnel from roughly the same time (the heyday in America of the so-called Pattern and Decoration movement), in that all three artists were using patterned fabric grounds, exotic decorative motifs, and an eclectic assortment of rectangular images organized into loose, antiformalist configurations. But whereas a cowboy by MacConnel might ride off willingly into a sunset, one by Polke would be told to get out of town by dusk. His materials seem possessed by some kind of dybbuk.

In addition to his esoteric material experiments, Polke seems to have spent some of that time in the lab investigating the more unorthodox elements within twentieth-century art. With an assist, perhaps, from Warhol’s “Oxidation” (or “Piss”) paintings, for example, he partly revived French tachisme—work by artists such as Jean Degottex, Simon Hantai, and Hans Hartung—to his own specifications, ultimately rechanneling it into his great, nimbuslike “Atmospheric” paintings of the ’80s, which would in turn trigger the atmospheric semiabstractions of a younger, American painter such as Ross Bleckner. And whether or not Polke successfully resuscitated those old bamboo poles from the ’60s, he can without a doubt take full credit for having resuscitated the later career of Francis Picabia, whose pulp-fiction figures and palimpsest composition became a sine qua non for early ’80s paintings in America. Both David Salle and Julian Schnabel “discovered” Polke in the mid- to late ’70s, and through him, late Picabia. The rest is recent history—no need to recount, save to say that Polke was not merely a key player in the international risorgimento of painting in the ’80s. He practically kicked it off.

The Polke retrospective in Bonn was above all a demonstration of the inexhaustibility of painting—at times it seemed that Polke was effecting through a single medium the combinations of ferocity and humor, communicativeness and inscrutability, rudeness and apocalyptic lyricism for which Bruce Nauman required ten. Polke is completely, palpably alive in his painting. Individually or in clusters, each work in the show seemed to exist with the immediacy, ironic or ordered, of a passing emotion, thought, or drift of conversation. (Some of his most recent figurative works include clothing, and seem almost to be responding to Salle’s mid-’80s responses to him.)

The show was organized by writer-critic Martin Hentschel in close collaboration with the artist; which no doubt accounts for its quality of physical grandeur—no pedantic ephemera, no doodles on hotel stationery and the like—as well as for some shortcomings, principally a sumptuous but tedious catalogue (the English version is also badly translated): Polke rails against but contributes to the noncomprehension of his work in both his own words and, at times, his choice of writers. But “Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting” processed triumphantly, Chinese-dragon style, through perhaps a dozen galleries—all large, several monumentally so—a great engine of painterly feints, epiphanies, and morphoses.

“Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting” is on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin until February 15.

Lisa Liebmann contributes frequently to Artforum.