New York

Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke’s long-standing fascination with amber, or Bernstein, was reflected in a recent exhibition of ten double-sided paintings (five new, five dating from 1989) plus two single-sided paintings (both from 1989) that simulate the fossil resin’s look, juxtaposed with three dozen rare Renaissance and Baroque amber objects, including several raw, unworked chunks of the material that are between thirty million and fifty million years old.

The paintings are built from honey-colored, semitranslucent artificial resin layered on polyester. The tone of the striations varies as a result of the process Polke invented to coax the resins to resemble antique amber. Their surfaces and underlayers are embedded with fragments of painted and drawn imagery as well as the occasional bug, and enhanced with a lively repertoire of stains, drips, lines, washes, marks, dots, and squiggles that conjure an abstract sublime. The paintings are dimensional in a literal sense and evince the passage of time (three of the new untitled works were produced over a period of five years spanning 2001–2006).

The ability of the faux amber paintings to hold and reflect light, enhanced by a curing process that results in “automatic” crystalline formations and random surface “blooms,” contributes to an almost magical sense of suspended animation. Images appear to flicker between the tinted layers, like apparitions only momentarily visible. Polke’s painterly involvement with the chance formations of the resin enhances the suggestion of unfathomably deep space and an attendant vertiginous delirium. Many of the paintings encapsulate folds of landscape and depictions of architectural fragments. There are also simple line drawings of figures and fashions—a gentleman in a fancy top coat, a profile of a woman in courtly costume—which point to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century style and thus to the treasury of antiques that accompanies the paintings, effectively transforming the gallery from a showroom to a wunderkammer.

Given their shared hazy transparency, glowing patina, and amazing translucent depth, Polke’s paintings and the antique amber objects are a perfect match. With the source of the artist’s inspiration so clearly presented, his paintings seemed more lucid. Guided by them, we are invited to see what Polke sees—to observe marvelously carved figurines and embellishments articulated in relation to lazy swirls of sticky sap turned solid aeons ago. Moving from prehistory to the Renaissance to the present, Polke makes time feel elastic.

Such maneuvers suggest more than just cultural cross-referencing. Viewed in relation to previous bodies of his work that incorporate “meteorite dust,” or those that Polke claimed were directed by “the higher beings,” the mythic and magical attributes of amber play into the wild cosmic channeling that underlies his visionary quest for the secrets of the universe. But however exotic his references might be, the artist’s perennial pursuit of altered states of mind remains grounded in the real, material world, its resources and natural processes.

Jan Avgikos