“…the complementary functions of empathy and conception, of inspiration and exploitation…forms the methodological basis for all of my works, elevating them above the grasp the convoluted pseudologisms of art critics who still operate with ante-diluvian explanatory concepts like fantasy, originality, creativity, etc. With this comment I wish to conclude my remarks on my life and work, in the knowledge that I have by no means answered all questions, particularly those regarding the authorship of this text.” Sigmar Polke (Verlag, 1997, p.294).
With the recent passing of Sigmar Polke, I thought it apropos that he be featured as this weeks Artist of the Week.
Sigmar Polke was born in Silesia, in 1941, and later moved to Düsseldorf to apprentice as a glass painter (Lane & Wylie, 2003, p.139). He abandoned this to practice art and his first public exhibition happened in Düsseldorf in 1963 thus launching his extremely versatile and virtuosic artistic career (Lane & Wylie, 2003, p.139).
His Work and Ideas
–Kevin Power, (Nesbitt, 1995, p.81)
“…the pursuit of unintelligibility”
–Donald Kuspit, (Nesbitt, 1995, p.81)
To define Sigmar Polke and his work constitutes a rather elusive and complicated task. Containing an oeuvre that spans over forty years, Polke’s diversity as an artist is easily given credence when one places examples of his work from various decades together and compares the pieces that may include any of the following: multi-layered silk-screens of cowboys, paintings of séances, translucent polyester images of a jeep, a potato house, manipulated photography, clumsily sketched people eating sausages, manipulated resin spills, and the list continues.
What emerges is a collection of pieces that, if one did not know otherwise, could easily be mistaken as the work of several different artists. As such, Polke’s work exists outside of, flirts with, is coy with, and inherently challenges critical convention due to a fundamental lack of integrity (Thistlewood, 1996, p.3-7). Unlike some other convention defying artists, Polke’s work demonstrates no one particular substructure or undercurrent that can be used to answer the question: What makes a Polke, a Polke? This changing of persona is a concern of the artist’s, as it fits in to his grander scheme of challenging convention in all artistic areas (Thistlewood, 1996, p.4). Although some may argue that Polke’s multifaceted personae are an “exemplification of quintessential Postmodernism,” (Thistlewood, 1996, p.16), one can easily (and validly) offer the counterpoint that this argument is largely ad hoc and that Polke’s work, from a critical standpoint, is simply incoherent (Thistlewood, 1996, p.19). Regardless, Polke’s brilliance and intellectual prowess are exhibited in every canvas and despite whether one likes the work or not, his work maintains its relevance in the postmodern world of art.
A Little Deeper
“We don’t need paintings,
we don’t need painters and
we don’t need artists.
Take it with a grain of salt!
–Sigmar Polke, (Verlag, 1997, p.8)
The cipher that is Polke’s art can, to some degree, be decoded by taking into account his artistic heritage. Some of his earlier works exhibit Dadaistic considerations and it is fair to say that without Marcel Duchamp, there would not be a Sigmar Polke. That Polke is a benefactor of the Dadaist legacy is clearly exhibited within the drawings of the 1960s in which he experimented with transforming random imagery into something meaningful (Verlag, 1997, p.58). Pursuing “meaning” or engaging in the creative process in accordance with traditional and institutional norms no longer maintained any relevance within the postmodern context as the foundation for such a pursuit had been undermined because, as Nietzsche succinctly states: “[t]he world that concerns us is false, that is to say, not a fact, but a rounded extrapolation of a meager collection of observations; it is ‘fluid,’ in the making, a constantly shifting falsehood that never approaches the truth; for—there is no truth,” (Verlag, 1997, p.59).
Polke’s work does not strictly conform to any absolute truth either metaphysical, as in the case of religious art, or artificial, as in the case of adherence to a unifying doctrine as, for example, the Futurists and their Manifesto. However, it would be unfair to limit Polke by simply labeling him a Neo-Dadaist; but it certainly clarifies Polke’s work, to some extent, to consider the words of Ihab Hassan: “[i]rony, perspectivism, reflexivity: these concepts express the human spirit’s ever necessary creativity in the search for a truth which always recedes before one and allows the individual no more than ironic access to itself,” (Verlag, 1997, p.59).
“…I finally found what I had been looking for—the very incarnation of everything art critics and teachers imagine when they think of a spontaneously creative subject with a love of innovation: the potato!”
Irony is another major component of Polke’s work and is perhaps the one element that can be found throughout his opus. Yet, ironically, one cannot simply say that Polke’s work is about irony as the methodology by which Polke creates and constructs his artistic ethos, as it were, fails to offer the critic with his standard issue of institutional critical tools any foundation upon which to construct a coherent summative analysis of Polke’s works. “Irony without restraint” perhaps might be a more apt, although still incomplete, moniker as his virtuosic work when viewed as a whole construes a different level of irony unique from that of his individual pieces making for an interesting although critically enigmatic body of work.
The tension created between the natural desire to make sense of Polke’s work but the fundamental incapability to do so is adequately summarized when Friedrich Schlegel states that, “[i]t [irony] contains and creates a sense of the inextinguishable conflict of the unconstrained and the constrained, of the impossibility and necessity of complete communication,” (Verlag, 1997, p.89). Despite the desire to “make sense” of Polke’s pluralistic work, it is inherently impossible to do so and it is reasonable to believe that this is exactly his intention as Polke states:
You see, I have, so to speak, split myself apart in order not to be unfair to myself nor to those outside of myself, nor to somehow oppress them. Perhaps everything will come back together again sometime, I can’t say, I am quite happy about this kind of many-sidedness, I am happy that I don’t just see black and white, but both at once, (Verlag, 1997, p.91).
Immersed in contradiction, Polke’s work “enthrones a carnivalesque world where all existence is relative, and where change and transformation derive their strength from that ironic glance that takes in all things and only destroys in order to renew,” (Verlag, 1997, p.91). This sounds like a neat, summative statement but it promptly fails as Polke’s art inherently defies definition and clear interpretation as his work does not contain a clear, linear thread of continuity that can offer any support for this claim.
I had hoped that by reading one of the very few Polke-authored texts, I would be able to gain some insight into his work. The text was entertaining to read, but due to his subversive coyness it was impossible to tell which portions of the text were genuine and which were not. I did find the introductory question that Polke posed of great interest and somewhat revalatory. The question that he poses is: “Does meaning generate relationships or do relationships generate meaning?” (Verlag, 1997, p.285). This question is as good a summation of Polke’s work as anything and I think it is representative of Polke’s primary driving force behind his work.
Although it is impossible to identify any thread of continuity in Polke’s enigmatic work, it seems appropriate to remember the words of William Blake when he said, “[r]ules make the path straight but crooked, unstraightened paths are the paths of genius,” (Verlag, 1997, p.68).
With the death of Sigmar Polke, the art world has lost a great figure whose unconventional means, materials and methods have surprised and perplexed the artistic community for decades. As such, his eccentric methodologies and deliberate coyness have kept him out of the mainstream which is unfortunate because, in my opinion, he was one of the most innovative artists of our time. Rest in peace, Sigmar.
Lane, J. & Wiley, C. (2003). Sigmar Polke: history of everything: paintings and drawings, 1998- 2003. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Nesbitt, A. (1995). Sigmar Polke: join the dots. London: Tate Gallery Liverpool.
Thistlewood, D. (1996). Sigmar Polke: back to postmodernity. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press and Tate Gallery Liverpool.
Verlag, C. et al. (1997). Sigmar Polke, the three lies of painting. Germany: Cantz Verlag.