New York

Sigmar Polke

These thirty-odd recent paintings continue to chart the problematic fusion of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol that makes Sigmar Polke the artist of greatest pertinence to the current generation of painters, be they European or American.

His new works—painted either directly onto a corrugated layer of hardened translucent gel or onto the fabric beneath these striated surfaces—are, despite their tag name “Lens Paintings,” scarcely lenticular at all. The ridging does not appreciably blur the patterns or occlude the visible images or the paint strokes. To insist on a lenslike tightening of focus seems, in this instance, to miss the point of Polke’s impulsiveness and the momentum of disaster it registers.

By now, Polke’s puddles of paint, pools of color, tireless (and clichéd) nineteenth-century steel-plate illustrations, modern benday newsprint imagery, gaudily patterned fabric, slack gesture and smudge are a dog’s lunch of scarcely provisional indexes for paint and brush, surrogates equaling Ego, not Edit. It may well be that Polke and his myriad followers are postulating a Mannerist form of Abstract Expressionism—a recognition that admits the preeminence of the earlier movement—even as they further “beautify” it or, contrarily, render it more “ugly” in the hope that in so doing their new resolutions will reset the priorities of our sense of painterly beauty.

While Polke’s charismatic sprawl is unquestionably influential, the very organizational principles of his art (if they could even be described as such) argue against the privileging of unique works. Thus, while Polke has an oeuvre, he has no canon—no Demoiselles d’Avignon, no Trois femmes à la fontaine, no Guernica, no La Pisseuse. But there are a vast number of works that, to a large and susceptible body of painters seeking a way out of the putative dead end of abstract painting today, signal (and sanction) pictorial abandon.

Well, that assertion overplays my hand. There are a certain number of Polkes—most from the “Zeitgeist” period, ca. 1982—that rise above the fray, tending to be more impacted in terms of visual incident than the vast body of works that amount to little more than spare change. In this show, one of those works to be found on the plus side of the “Lens Paintings,” The Illusionist, 2007, invokes a congested Austro-Hungarian creepiness replete with séances, charlatans, and ectoplasmic photography (recalling the 2006 film of the same name that starred Edward Norton). Something of this melodramatic aura is also mustered in the densely clotted Miracle of Siegen, 2007. For the rest, alles ist in Ordnung with Polke’s depleted-of-meaning gestures tossed upon tacky surfaces, to which a generation seeking the splendors of painting but none of its miseries has adhered itself— and is now stuck.

Robert Pincus-Witten