Sigmar Polke

Not interested in politics? Well, politics is interested in you. While you go about your business, hustling to work on the train or in a car, amid the swarming crowd, politicians look down from on high, drawing lines—of national boundaries and corporate connections—making decisions about right and wrong. The artist/intellectual can sympathize with either position. He may be down here with us little guys, feeling his way through the system, bumping up against its flaws and failures, like George Grosz or, more recently, Mike Kelley. Or the artist may sit in judgment, telling us what would be best for us, serving up high-minded ideals, like Malevich or Daniel Buren. Sigmar Polke accepts neither role. He occasionally plays the fool, but he isn’t the blinkered “little man,” who gets us all into trouble by refusing to look and think. Nor does Polke accept the know-it-all pose of the omniscient all-seeing seer. Instead, he forces the two positions together, creating a point of interference where the individual meets the system.

Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art’s John R. Lane and Charles Wylie, “Sigmar Polke” featured sixty-three paintings, drawings, and mechanically produced prints from the last four years. Four enclosed rooms were filled with relatively small works that draw on printing mistakes, eighteenth-century engravings, alchemical experiments, and newspaper photographs, with free-form abstraction thrown in for good measure. For the museum’s huge central space, the artist produced new large-scale works using imagery he collected from German and Texan newspapers over several weeks last summer.

Polke prepares viewers for the exhibition with a monumental work at the entranceway—a giant photographic image of the Seventh Cavalry graves at Little Bighorn, screenprinted on fabric in a commercial process that produces what the artist calls a “machine painting.” For Native Americans, Little Bighorn represents a heroic moment when they overcame the US military’s invasion of Montana. (Of course, they won the battle but lost the war, and were systematically slaughtered.) For most Americans, however, Little Bighorn is Custer Country, memorialized by a monument to soldiers who lost their lives fighting for freedom. Everything depends on your point of view.

The first two paintings in the central space were called History of Everything, I and II, both 2002. Each one is made on white canvaslike fabric, divided into a grid of twelve black-bordered squares, every frame of which bears an image—except for a center block, which is a semitransparent, iridescent panel that, like a scrim, allows audiences to see the painting’s stretcher bars. History of Everything, I catalogues abstract marks, dots, and blobs reminiscent of Polke’s earlier work with printing errors and Xerox drawings (which take static, digital marks and turn them into vectors). The work’s companion piece features representational but low-resolution halftone images of subjects: soft-core spanking girls, a cartoonish Oktoberfest scene, sci-fi aliens, two people lying on a beach, a man sitting, a family, a man walking (after Millet’s Sower?), another man bending over (after Courbet’s Stonebreakers?), and a couple of Afghanis on horseback shown three times (seen clearly from a middle distance, from a bird’s-eye view, and then wildly enlarged, brought too close, so that the men become abstract information).

Polke played with this last image throughout the show. The source material is revealed in The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, 2002: a blown-up diagram, taken from a German newspaper, of a Predator drone plane locking its beam on tiny abstract forms on the ground. An inset shows a close-up view of these figures, which turn out to be bearded and turbaned men on horseback, with a caption that reads (in German) “From up to 7,600 meters, the Predator sends a series of high resolution pictures.” The diagram also depicts the aircraft’s transmission of the image via satellite to a US Army base in Kuwait, and around the world, from Uzbekistan to the CIA and Pentagon in Washington and the RAF in London. “The enemy can be attacked seconds later,” the caption continues. The people are turned into abstract information and then obliterated. In I Live in my Own World, But It’s OK, They Know me Here, 2002, Polke paints the horsemen in black, blowing the image up so that the figures become mere blobs within a raster layered onto fabrics—one of iridescent silver, the other blue with mauve dots. The gallery was full of works based on printing errors, and here each man looked like one more smudge, slip, or smear—a reminder that in mass society the individual only registers inasmuch as he is an error, an irregularity in the social fabric.

A second motif emerged in the central space: In the large-scale Do the World a Favor and Eat a Bullet, 2002, two menacing cowboys face the viewer with hats and guns at the ready. A fuller picture appears in Fastest Gun in the West, 2002 (in one of the smaller rooms), where these desperadoes are revealed to be not actual bullies but just cardboard-cutout targets from a Wild West shooting range—where a man with a real rifle is taking aim. The western theme provided an organizing principle for the room, with guns showing up in three other paintings. A Remington cartridge box with the words POWER PATTERN and FIELD LOADS and an open shell spilling out round shot, appears in This Discovery Could Have Grave Consequences for Mankind, 2002. Beside that work Splatter Analysis, 2002, displays a man kneeling next to a round paper target riddled with bullet holes, and his penciled-in score—the results of a contest of aim and intention versus the uncontrolled chance of physicality. (You can imagine scoring painters similarly: Richter 153, Pollock 97.) The strangest of these “gun” paintings is undoubtedly I Don’t Really Think About Anything Too Much, 2002, in which a grinning woman brandishes her firearm in front of a silhouetted male target, which is riddled, dead center, with bullet holes. This weirdly feminist image is painted on hideous southwestern terra-cotta-and-turquoise fabric with printed squares. It’s easy to guess what drew Polke to these images: In addition to their violent oddness, the shot and holes in all three paintings, with their positive and negative forms, mimic and contradict the black halftone dots of the artist’s newspaper sources.

The artist is having his hosts on with all this cowboy business, a sideways reference to the vicious smirk and swagger of former Texas governor George W. Bush. But for Polke, Texas embodies only the farthest-out version of the “West.” His oeuvre is filled with references to West and East Germany (one 1992 work was titled Joint Project Upswing East, the slogan of German reunification), to Western and Eastern Europe, and to the mythologies of the United States. Nor is Afghanistan a new topic: “Bärenkampf” (Bear Fight), a 1974 group of photographs, depicted combat in that country as battles between dogs and bears, with the bear obviously representing the Russian occupying force. (In a complicated world, sometimes Russia is the East, sometimes the West.)

The perspective of Western or “advanced” society was a third theme in the exhibition: in other words, the view from above. In one arm of the museum’s central space, two giant “machine paintings” made from prints depicting historic balloon rides (in 1801 and 1817) face each other—quaint pictures that, in their day, described technological innovation and supremacy. Images of those who see the world from such a skybox vantage are echoed in Serial Totas: Ground Beef, 2002. Hanging high above visitors’ heads, the painting showed seismographic markings placed in the sky, forming an alien face—a frightening apparition that emerges from seemingly random visual information to menace or protect us, something bigger than us and beyond our control. Polke is clearly amused by the wacky nonscience of UFOs, but the alien represents something ominous and real for the artist. The text accompanying one painting from 1966 reads, “I stood before the canvas, intending to paint a bunch of flowers, then from higher beings I received the command: No bunch of flowers! Paint flamingos! At first, I intended to go on painting as before, but then I realized that they meant business.” The beings there obviously stand in for modernist strictures and dictatorial art critics; in this show, Polke connects that omniscient, superior voice to the guns and rockets appearing from nowhere to subjugate Native Americans and Afghanis, respectively. Because all of these images are machine paintings, they have an impersonal finish that conjures distance and disengagement.

In the show’s final room, Polke showed the other side of the lofty look: the subject as little man. One painting depicts a putto frolicking with a frightening mask; behind the scary grimace is the face of a smiling baby. In another piece, a stout boy in a military uniform struts across the work’s resin-coated surface. The disturbing Cook Up Art with a Culinary Flair, 2002, shows two young women looming over a tiny man, set against a ground of kitschy fabric. Men take their revenge in the next work, Me and My Buddies Would Vote for You, 2002, in which guys at an American theme bar leer at a woman in a thong who crawls on all fours on their table. The would-be revelers seem ambivalent, stuck uneasily in obligatory macho posturing; the fabric ground is patterned with repeating images of horses, hunting, and beer drinking. Polke has painted the kleiner Mann before, and there is often something childish and stunted about his men. You suspect that they are not so different from the people looking down from above: Certain little men are elevated by the power system around them.

The view from above, and the little man’s defensive strut, are not the only perspectives for Polke. In Triptych, 2002, three gigantic abstract paintings on fabric, he combines a sense of scale and ambition with the modesty of individual action. Drawn marks skid across surfaces overlaid with irregular, screenprinted swaths of paint: These abstract pieces reject any system, whether of mechanical geometry or gesture—as the latter shares the surface with sections of stenciled raster. Such abstraction and experiment could be found on a smaller scale throughout the show, particularly in paintings of printing errors and in alchemical works, made with varnish and metals, that turn transparent and brittle, and oxidize beautifully, rendering change visible. In Polke’s hands, even mechanical reproduction acquires a kind of unique individuality that lives in time. The printing-error pictures are related to other work, in which the iridescent colors of fabric shift as viewers move. Polke’s paintings seem to look back at us, reactive and unfixed—in contrast to the photograph’s frozen view, and in opposition to the desire to colonize and control.

Despite Polke’s own tremendous ambition and reach, he refuses the authoritarian point of view. He agitates against the power of representation to fix and kill, against the power of dogma, overviews, histories, and authorities to order and push people around. A recently freed American POW said of his capture by Iraqi soldiers, “We were like Custer out there,” perhaps not realizing the full aptness of the analogy—that the battle was a temporary setback for an invading force fighting an outmatched native population. Polke suggests that—like the historical interpretation of Little Bighorn—the contemporary question of who is a terrorist is a matter of perspective.

Katy Siegel, a contributing editor of Artforum, teaches contemporary art history and criticism at Hunter College, CUNY.