Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

Sigmar Polke: Painting as a Game without Limits

Sigmar Polke; Moderne Kunst; 1968, Acryl auf Lack auf Leinwand; 150 x 125 cm; Sammlung Josef Froehlich
Sigmar Polke; Moderne Kunst; 1968, Acryl auf Lack auf Leinwand; 150 x 125 cm; Sammlung Josef Froehlich
Moderne Kunst
For the first time in ten years in Germany, the Frieder Burda Museum, located in the southern German town of Baden-Baden, is showing the works of the painter Sigmar Polke in a big one-man exhibition. Sixty pictures and more than one hundred drawings from four decades are on display.

The curator of the exhibition, Götz Adriani, has been able to select works from three important private collections – those of Frieder Burda, Joseph Fröhlich and Reiner Speck – and assemble, in the brilliantly white museum built by the American architect Richard Meier, a comprehensive retrospective.

The exhibition demonstrates the principle of permanent metamorphosis as the core of Sigmar Polke's art. Polke works incessantly on how to invent new pictures. As no other contemporary German painter, he allows himself an art in the spirit of ironic playfulness. His pictures are thereby hermetically sealed off from interpretation. He practices painting as the triumph of painting, as pleasure for the painter and an offer to the viewer. Wer hat noch nicht, wer will noch mal (i.e., Who hasn't been served yet, who wants more) is the title of one of his pictures.

Together with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg (who later ran one of the leading German art galleries under his real name Konrad Fischer), Polke proclaimed for a short time in the 1960s the art of 'capitalist realism'. The then still young artists stood at the beginnings of their careers. They were searching for a recipe for success and found it in American Pop Art.

Polke's early drawings play with the trivial and the banal, and this play with surfaces, with clichés and kitsch, is still there in his work today. Models from such obscure sources as Bäckerblume and media that have been tenaciously shut out of art like glossy magazines and advertising brochures are good enough for him. He has sought proximity to the world of consumer goods and to everyday life, and treated them with a relishing irony.

Irony and play have become second nature to Polke. He freely uses everything that appears to him to be pictorially powerful. His art has little use for profundity and higher meaning. 'Something that the masses like and sells well can't be bad' is the mocking credo of his kind of painting.

'I love all points' (S. Polke)

Sigmar Polke; Urlaubsbild; 1966, 99 x 90 cm; Sammlung Josef Froehlich
The raster point became a basic element of Polke's painting. Images in print or on television are regarded as 'poor' when one can see the points of which they are composed. Polke reverses this evaluation. He enlarges motifs that interest him until they can no longer be recognised for the points, or until the points themselves provide an image.

In Konfettibild (i.e., Confetti Image, 1966) the viewer perceives his joy in the uninhibited treatment of points. Polke took a handful of punched out coloured paper dots from a hole puncher, sprinkled them over the surface of a page, and then simply fixed them. He pinned his hopes to the automatism of pictorial invention, and the page proves that the method works. The viewer reads the points like tea-leaves.

Typical for Polke's early pictures is the introduction of new supports for his painting. In place of a grounded canvass, which normally functions as the support, he uses variegated, shrilly patterned department store fabric of the cheapest sort. Its tastelessness rubs him the wrong way. From this he draws the picture's tensions. 'The fabric describes the milieu better than one could ever describe it oneself' (S. Polke). By having long-necked flamingos stalk over fabric canvasses, or kitschily exaggerating kitschy motifs, Polke extracts tenable pictures in which something of the narrow-mindedness of the time becomes visible. Polke hyperbolises tastelessness; he radicalises the stupidity of the motifs and extracts new images from the struggle with all clichés. He welcomes anything from which a picture can be drawn. Cosmos and twaddle. He is a Don Quixote who battles with brush and canvass.

The art of mocking

In several works Polke comes to grips with contemporary art, and in the spirit of mocking competition. In the picture Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke schwarz malen! (i.e., Higher Powers Commanded: Paint the Upper Right-Hand Corner Black!) he maintains that he simply could do nothing else but paint the upper right-hand corner black. The picture makes fun of the cult of genius and yet profits from precisely that freedom which it mocks.

Sigmar Polke; Lösungen V; 1967, 150 x 125,5 cm; Sammlung Reiner Speck
Lösungen V
His picture entitled Lösungen (i.e., Solutions) presents simple mathematical problems, only with the tiny difference that what seems to be painted with matter-of-courseness is invariably wrong. None of the calculations are right, but the picture is still successful. Such freedom is possible only in art. Another picture, whose title Moderne Kunst (i.e., Modern Art) is written on the canvass, shows a pair of abstract streaks of colour, several zestfully intercrossing brushstrokes, and a mysterious number. Together nothing makes any sense, but it forms a picture. Whoever demands more of a picture has come to the wrong person in Polke. His pictures are immune against interpretation.

And lest anyone suppose he lacks the courage to plunder the Old Masters, in another picture he forces motifs that he took from Goya's Caprichos and a series of graphics by Max Ernst into an astounding unity. A few calligraphic strokes of handwriting from Altdorfer, gigantically enlarged and set in a 'poured picture', suffice for Polke to make a new picture out of an old one. This is painting that boldly makes use of all predecessors. No matter whether it makes sense: the main thing is that something good-looking comes out of it. Dürer's world famous hare is, when Polke places it on decorative fabric, something hitherto unknown to art. Anything goes – Polke practices art as a game without limits.

Calculated accident: poured and synthetic resin pictures

In his 'poured pictures' Polke works with calculated accident. Since surrealism and abstract expressionism, accident has of course been no stranger to modern art. By pouring colour substances on a laid out canvass and directing the process only to a restricted degree through swaying the picture's surface, Polke surrenders the task of pictorial invention to the colours themselves. He approaches painting like alchemy. The artist is only the observer who declares, at a certain point, the process to be concluded.

Polke has increasingly used transparent polyester fabric for his pictures, to which he applies synthetic resin lacquer in many layers. Passing these pictures, the viewer notices that their colouration changes according to the angle from which he looks at them. The picture is never finished. It transforms itself like a living unity before the eyes of the viewer. And precisely this relishing, living quality of art seems to be the point for Polke. However transparent the surfaces of his canvasses often are, the painter himself will not be seen through. Polke is a Proteus who speaks in oracles, but who takes care not to interpret them himself. His pictures have no problems; therefore they need no solutions. They are sufficient unto themselves.

The exhibition runs until May 13 in the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden.

 Observations on pictures by Sigmar Polke

Jan Thorn-Prikker,
former member of the Goethe-Institut online editorial team

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
March 2007

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