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The Significance of Sigmar Polke

The very idea of art’s exaltedness led ambitious artists to aspire to a public importance, at some odds with their actual position, as producers for the luxury trade. Piet Mondrian, for instance, believed despite his obscurity that his mode of abstract painting had radical political implications and powers. Fifty years ago, the sheer size of the pictures made by the Abstract Expressionists expressed their sense of the cultural significance of their work. In the present moment, when art is increasingly assimilated to what passes under the name of entertainment, and its status as high-priced commodity is generally acknowledged, it might seem particularly inhospitable to such ambitions. But not only does art continue to be an area in which practitioners can achieve some sense of freedom from the normal indignities of wage labor, it can still lend itself to the making of large-scale political statements. Paradoxically, in fact, the very celebrity of certain artists— including their commercial success and the status of their works as prime investments— has created opportunities for them to engage critically with contemporary society.

Gerhard Richter’s work is probably the best known example of this phenomenon. His fellow painter of East German origin, Sigmar Polke shares with Richter an antagonism towards the social system that has richly rewarded them, along with a capacity for production so vast that it seems almost compulsive. Both are determinedly anti-ideological: social criticism for them takes the form not of illustration or expression of views formulated in some specifically political context, but in the exploration of their position as artists, and as painters specifically, within the social order. Hence, importantly, both are concerned with the relation of their archaic profession to more modern methods of image production, in particular photography and printing. The artist is a maker of images; he or she meets the social world today in the context of the flood of pictures, still and moving, that not only represent but help to constitute social reality.

Polke’s current exhibition in the Dallas Museum of Art takes on the issue of the relation between images and reality on a breathtaking scale. Among the nearly 50 paintings and drawings included, made during the last four years, is a set of very large pictures, going well beyond the easel picture, evoking the great wall paintings of earlier times. But the scale of this exhibition is not just a matter of the size of individual paintings: they are interrelated thematically (and pictorially) to a degree that transforms the central hall and four rooms of the museum given over to them into a building-sized pictorial ensemble.

According to the museum’s press release, Polke, acclaimed for "satirizing contemporary life’s pretensions," here "investigates ideas of perception and vision." That something less anodyne than this is at work is suggested by the gigantic picture on the wall that leads to the main exhibition space: a printed enlargement of a photograph of the National Historic Monument at Little Big Horn, in which visitors stand at the edges of what seems as much a cemetery as a monument. Turning the corner brings into view a piece of equal size, "The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda" (2002) measuring 275 5/8" × 196 7/8", which reproduces another found image. In this case, it is a newspaper diagram of the use of a camera-bearing Predator drone to identify possible enemies in the mountains of Afghanistan. Within seconds, this visual information, passed through American army intelligence stations, can result in the firing of a missile at the turbaned horseman shown far below on a mountain road. The courage involved in juxtaposing these two images— one seemingly in tune with liberal sympathies, the other raising more difficult questions about the American response to 9/11—should not go unmentioned. Whose perception, whose vision is at their subject?

Little Big Horn is seen from a distance, that of time; the massacre is represented by a monument. The dead Indian has become a good one. The newspaper diagram, picturing the present, works with space: it apes the drone with a view from above. The reach of the U.S. Army is global thanks to the transmission of images for analysis and decision. Furthermore, the army wants not only to see but to be seen: it wants a global image— not just the literal image in the newspaper— but the "credibility" that the U.S. might attack other countries in order to safeguard itself.

Polke has always been suspicious of the view from above. In 1969 he made a painting mocking Modernist progressivism, "Higher Powers Demand: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black!" Modernism claimed universality of pictorial language, fit to point the way to humanity’s necessary future. But actually this art had a specific socio-historical location, in the West, where art took on its present form as a part of the society that then spread across the world. The West that created modern art also destroyed cultures and peoples, like those of the Americas. It produced global wars and the methodical destruction of millions, and continues to threaten the natural world with ecological disaster. As Walter Benjamin observed, "Every monument of civilization is a monument of barbarism." One doesn’t have to sympathize with Al Qaeda to remember the civilians killed by American attacks in Afghanistan, damage collateral to the view from above. Little Big Horn symbolizes how the West was won.

We are left today in the middle of modernity, with its resources as well as its terrors. With painting, for instance, with an insistence on the particular alongside ideological generalities. While Benjamin believed that the special virtue of photographic printing was that it brought things closer to people, it is one of Polke’s insights that the mechanical reproduction of images, while making them transmissible, in principle across the globe, can also distance us from the things they represent. He also shows that this distance can be overcome, if we make the effort to approach closely. Photomechanical imagery, enlarged by actual or figurative approach, turns into a field of dots in which the original image vanishes. A close look also reveals the errors— splotches of ink, broken or smeared dots, etc.— inevitably produced by the accidents of the printing process. The Dallas exhibition includes a number of fine examples of Polke’s paintings of printing errors. He makes it clear that the error is no intruder into the printed order, but a product of it. What, from the viewpoint of the authorities— those who have chosen pictures to be printed in newspapers, for instance— represent mistakes, disruptions, to Polke represent eruptions of individuality and opportunities for exhilaration as well as anxiety.

They bear a potential realized by Polke in a particularly pure form in a triptych of paintings, "Tryptich" (2002) each measuring 157 1/2" × 118", hung at the far end of the main exhibition hall, made with artificial resin on polyester (through which the stretchers and so the distance to the wall on which they are hung can be seen). They shimmer and glow with gold, yellow, and green under black loops and lines marking the surface of the support and thus completing the inventory of the materials of painting. The gestural marks seem to lie on top of swathes of dot grids recalling the rasters of printed imagery. Simple in their imagelessness, complex in their shifting colors and densities, these pictures are apparitions of the human ability to form new realities, beyond the reproduction of the existent— restatements of the old promise of abstract painting, in direct conflict with the dominant image culture of our time.

Polke responded to the invitation to make works for a Texas museum by using as source material items from local newspapers. The common element in all of them is the gun: a display of rifles for sale at a gun show, a young woman with her pistol at a firing range, an ad for Remington shotgun loads, and so forth. But there is no easy antithesis of humanism and violence. "Splatter Analysis" (2002) is based on a photograph of a shooter inspecting a target, noting the spread of shotgun pellets. The joke is double-barreled: the shot pattern recalls the reproductive raster, while the title also suggests a laugh at the expense of Abstract Expressionism (not forgetting, in this context, Jackson Pollock’s self-presentation as a tough guy from the West)— a joke that bears on Polke himself, whose work characteristically pursues serious intentions by way of chance effects.

A more than lifesize painting of two grotesque gun-toting cowboys ("Do the World a Favor and Eat a Bullet," 2002) turns into its opposite when we walk past it into the gun-picture room to see the whole image from which they have been abstracted. Far from the shot-up desperadoes they seem, they are paper targets for an out-of-shape shooter— made out of the black-on-white dots of a newspaper photograph copied in paint on a 118 1/8" × 197 7/8" piece of translucent fabric— at a shooting gallery with the slogan "The Fastest Gun in the West." The slogan states the idea at the root of the Predator hunting Afghans; but with the shooter down on the ground, not sitting at an intelligence command post controlling destruction at a distance, the idiocy of his potshots at enemies of his own construction is apparent. This dialectic of strength and weakness is another theme running through the exhibition. A picture at once disturbing and funny shows a grown-up man sitting on a sofa, reduced to childlike powerlessness by the presence of two housewives who tower above him. Man gets his revenge on woman, however, in a picture on an adjoining wall showing what seem to be beer-drinking soldiers in a Texas-themed bar, perhaps in Germany, amusing themselves with a half-naked woman crawling on their table ("Me and My Buddies Would Vote for You," 2002).

Polke himself is, of course, male as well as Western. His way with painting is in the heroic tradition of Western art: large in scale and subject matter, taking on the grandest themes of the day in a voice insistently his own. But he’s also willing to cede control to his materials, letting colors swirl and mix on the surfaces (front and back) of his transparent polyester or commercially-printed fabric supports. He seems to recognize the weakness of his art in the face of the gigantic apparatus of commercial and political image-production operating around us, without for a moment ceasing both to mock that apparatus and to offer alternatives, celebrating anomalies, striving to be himself an anomaly through and through. Within the private collection and the museum, the places set aside for art within the modern division of cultural labor, he does his best to render visible what he can of the social totality, with its elements of terror and beauty, a range of experience that perhaps only a wild sense of humor like Polke’s can make bearable. The result is an exhibition so rich in visual interest, intelligence, anarchic spirit, and painterly exhilaration that it makes the abandonment of exaltation, of the wish to see and portray (and control) the world from above, seem a great triumph of the human spirit.


Paul Mattick

PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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