Typical. You wait ages for an exhibition to do with a major post-1945 German artist, then two arrive at once. Hot on the heels of the new Anselm Kiefer show at the Royal Academy (previously reviewed on this site) comes this one at Tate Modern on Kiefer’s near-contemporary, Sigmar Polke. The artist himself, before his death from cancer in 2010, was involved in the early stages of the organization of this retrospective, which comes to London after a successful run at MOMA in New York.
Polke was born in Silesia, part of present-day Poland, in 1941. His family fled to Germany at the end of World War II, then moved again to escape the Communist regime, finally settling near Dusseldorf in 1953. Polke trained at the Arts Academy in Dusseldorf, and later taught in Hamburg, but was based in Cologne after 1978, by which time he was recognized as one of the most important and influential contemporary German artists. Frequently mentioned in the same breath as his former teacher, Joseph Beuys, and his former collaborator, Gerhard Richter, he in turn influenced a host of younger artists, notably Richard Prince, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Damien Hirst and Gary Hume.
Polke’s work is extremely varied, and previous exhibitions have tended to concentrate on just one aspect; this is the first one that aims to cover his entire career. Spread across 14 rooms with nearly 200 exhibits, it includes drawings, notebooks, paintings, film, photographs and sculpture, from all five decades of Polke’s artistic output.
Polke started out in the 1960s as a Pop artist, although he and Richter chose the ironic term “Capitalist Realism” to describe their work, which, like Warhol’s, features everyday products such as biscuits, Tupperware, socks and sausages. He also did magnified “Ben-Day” dot paintings in the manner of Roy Lichtenstein, and painted on the decorative fabrics used in bourgeois interiors. As well as thumbing his nose at consumer culture, Polke satirized the popularity of abstraction in German art in paintings such as “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!” (1969).
In the 1970s Polke turned increasingly to film and photography. He also immersed himself in the alternative scene, experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, living in a commune, and traveling on the “hippie trail.” Typical of his work in this period is the short film “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan” (circa 1974-76), featuring multi-colored buses, men smoking opium and drinking tea, and a street artist with a monkey that performs back-flips before apparently playing dead. The backing track includes music from the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report. Everybody in the film appears to be stoned.
In the 1980s Polke concentrated on painting again, although, typically, he rarely used conventional oil on canvas. Just as in his films he played around with double exposure, or in photography he made images by exposing the paper to uranium (which he kept in a lead box in his studio), in his paintings he experimented with increasingly bizarre materials: powdered meteorite, soot, bubble wrap, various toxic pigments, and even, in “Purple” (1986), a dye extracted from boiled snails.
The final twenty years of Polke’s life, covered in the last four or five rooms at the Tate, were equally diverse. One of the most intriguing works in the show, “The Illusionist” (2007), deals with one of his favorite themes: how we as an audience see and respond to images. In it, Polke overlaps two scenes: an engraving showing two stage magicians with a blindfolded woman between them, and another of three men holding drawn swords in a bizarre ritual. He seems to be concerned here with substantial and indeterminate space, and the interplay between two different worlds, that of illusion and that of reality.
I emerged from this exhibition deeply impressed by the sheer range of Polke’s output, but frankly puzzled about his intentions as an artist. Eccentric and irreverent, Polke gave the impression of taking neither his life nor his art very seriously. Obviously, there was a more sober aspect to his work, but he never seems exactly burdened by Germany’s turbulent past, and he lacks the earnestness or either Richter or Kiefer. He was more like the German folklore character Till Eulenspiegel, the practical joker who goes round exposing hypocrisy, greed and folly at every turn. In interviews, he was notoriously evasive and contradictory: one critic wrote that talking with him was to know how Margaret Dumont must have felt trying to get a straight answer out of the Marx Brothers. Polke remains a frustratingly difficult artist to pin down.