Sigmar Polke at Leo Koenig Inc.

This exhibition at Leo Koenig Inc. does no favors to either the oeuvre or the memory of the German painter Sigmar Polke, who died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 69. Who it favors is hard to say—certainly not the viewer or, at least, a viewer with only a cursory idea of Polke’s status and achievement.

Polke came of age after the Second World War and straddled the political and cultural divides between East and West. He adopted a neo-Dadaist brand of anarchist agit-prop, abjuring a signature style in the cause of anti-commodification. In 1963, Polke founded the “Capitalist Realism” group along with like-minds Gerhard Richter and Konrad Fischer. You don’t need a PhD in post-modernism to glean their dour, programmatic intent.

As with many anti-commodity artists, Polke’s work went on to become a hot commodity, an irony that didn’t seem to elicit much self-examination (or doubt) on the international art star’s part. And Polke was, most decidedly, a star. In his New York Times obituary, critic Roberta Smith described Polke as “nearly as influential as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.”  In blue-chip parlance, you couldn’t ask for better company.

Without knowing something of Polke’s cultural and, yes, capitalist realist standing, you’re unlikely to make much sense of Koenig’s artful installation of photographs, dim and desultory pictures of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, works in progress, art fairs, friends and the artist pretending to be a palm tree. Fans and scholars—people who genuinely believe the work “emphasizes a delight in the unintentional and infuses… pictorial language with an incandescent force”—will be mesmerized by Koenig’s cache of Polke arcana.

The rest of us? We’ll figure out pretty quickly that the marketplace moves in not so mysterious ways and skip on to the next venture.

 © 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 12, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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