MoMA’s Sigmar Polke Retrospective Surveys the Prolific German Artist’s Career
By Jason Edward Kaufman
MoMA’s career survey of German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) is a vast solo exhibition for an artist little known in the United States. Some 265 works span five decades, but Polke’s various styles, media, and far-ranging content make the galleries seem like a group show, and a fascinating though uneven one at that.
In her catalogue essay, artist Jutta Koether places Polke among a group of men born during or just before the Nazi era who came of age in the 1960s, and “made it their mission to come to terms with, or address, the defective cultural constitution of West Germany.” The country was “in full denial” of complicity in Nazi atrocities, and artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter stoked controversy by scraping away the scab of lies that shielded the German people from guilt. Richter portrayed his uncle in Nazi uniform and Luftwaffe bombers in flight. Kiefer painted Third Reich architectural monuments and made photographic self-portraits giving the Nazi salute. Such provocations were condemned as bad taste, but today these figures are acknowledged as the definitive artistic voices of their time. Polke is the least celebrated among them. His assault on authority, taste and bourgeois conformism was comprehensive, seeming to question or upend every convention of society, philosophy, religion, and art.
Political and cultural ferment were Polke’s birthright. Born in present-day Poland at the outset of the war, his family fled to East Germany and eight years later escaped the Soviets and settled in West Germany in 1953. In the mid 1960s he and Richter were students at the Dusseldorf Art Academy where Joseph Beuys was preaching his shamanistic take on art as an arena for social change. Polke had a more conceptual and critical bent. Swastikas and concentration camp watchtowers appear in his works, but his critique of German culture was more thoroughgoing. The first object one encounters in MoMA’s atrium is Potato House (1967), a peak-roofed garden shed made of wood lattice with potatoes attached at the gridded structure’s junctures. The piece is not only a surrealistic riff on Minimalism, but an emblem of folksy horticulture presented as a transparent icon of the German popular soul.
Skeptical of the power of mass media, Polke looked to the Pop Art of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol for strategies on how to address consumer society. He remakes a news photo of Lee Harvey Oswald using handpainted dots based on offset printing reproduction, transforming the photo of the assassin into a porous veil hovering in a blank void. He punctures the hyperbolic optimism of advertising with a huge drawing titled Supermarkets (1976) that shows Supermen pushing shopping carts down the aisles. He paints on cheap consumer textiles, incorporating mass-produced prints of cars and tropical vacationlands into compositions that critique West German economic aspirations. Concerned with nuclear power, he exposed photosensitive paper to uranium to make cosmic images.
Ever in pursuit of mind expansion, he partook liberally of drugs, making magic mushrooms a leitmotif. He manipulates xerography in psychedelic ways, converting an instrument of bureaucracy instrument into one of visionary transformation. He shot 100 hours of film, some of it double-exposed, consisting of diaristic handheld records of exhibition openings, scenes of his wife, friends and curators clowning, desultory images of the television screen in the living room, and travel footage, including tribal rituals in Papua New Guinea and poppy growers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of it is negligible and amateurish, yet of anecdotal interest, like unedited notes for a memoir.
He produced an almost alchemical combination of materials and styles admixing high and low culture, abstraction and figuration, the handmade and the mechanical. It’s a messy business: bad figurative drawing, muddled abstract painting, cartoon characters, unusual media and found objects, collages of images ripped from magazines, doctored photographs, stained glass, assemblages, paintings on printed fabrics, home movies. “It is hard to think of them as the product of one person, or even a single culture,” noted Roberta Smith in her review of MoMA’s 1999 exhibition of Polke’s works on paper, the last major showing of his work in the U.S.. By the time he died of liver cancer in 2010, Polke had waged a half-century campaign against complacency. Some of his works are slight and slapdash, but the sheer variety of his output was itself revolutionary, a record of a mercurial mind that remains inspiring.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared on Artphaire (Online), June 11, 2014.