Sigmar Polke, Mao (1972), synthetic polymer paint on patterned fabric mounted on felt with wooden dowel, overall: 12’3″ x 10’3-1/2″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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A version of this article originally appeared in the May 3, 1999 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 at The Museum of Modern Art. Additional thoughts about Polke can be found here.
It’s been said that anyone approaching the contemporary art scene, with its bewildering array of styles and attitudes, should do so with an open mind. All the same, there are events so incredulous that one is reminded of the old joke about the guy who was so open-minded his brains fell out. Such is the case with Sigmar Polke: Works on Paper, 1963-1974 at The Museum of Modern Art.
It should be understood that Mr. Polke (born 1941), a German artist who came of age during the 1960s, is considered one of the era’s defining figures. Not every painter is feted with a show at the premier museum of twentieth-century art, as well as concurrent exhibitions at prestigious galleries like Michael Werner and Knoedler & Company. Such treatment signals an artist of import, one whose fans are vocal and effusive. Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, posited Mr. Polke as “the artist who rescued painting”. Margit Rowell, chief curator of drawings at MoMA and organizer of Works on Paper, declares in the accompanying catalogue that Mr. Polke’s art “regenerate[s] the language and meaning of Western artistic experience.” In The New York Times, Roberta Smith peppered her review with adjectives like “astounding” and “engrossing”.
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Given the earth-shaking tenor of such kudos, you might think that Mr. Polke’s accomplishment stood alongside that of the Old Masters. Ms. Rowell does go on to suggest that Mr. Polke is, in spirit, a late 20th-century equivalent to Hieronymous Bosch. Now, Bosch painted his share of fantastic scenarios, but even these are prosaic compared to the huzzahs that have greeted Mr. Polke’s trifling art. The Polke phenomenon, if we can call it that, is the most recent manifestation of hero worship in an art world that worships the anti-heroic.
Sigmar Polke, Moderne Kunst (1968); courtesy the Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society, NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
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Mr. Polke culls his images from commercial illustration, movie posters, newspaper photographs and comic books. When he’s not aping mass media sources, Mr. Polke flirts–or maybe “toys” is a better word–with modernist abstraction. He’s an equal opportunity aesthete: Kandinsky and kitsch, Spider-Man and Lee Harvey Oswald, it’s all the same to him. A cursory appropriator, Mr. Polke is incapable of investing an image with pictorial heft. (The MOMA show features innumerable drawings that aspire to doodle status.)
His sensibility, shaped by Pop Art and a lax nihilism, is shapeless–a non-sensibility. He’s an artist for whom art is a diversion. That the work is bereft of anything resembling traditional draftsmanship is, if we are to believe his devotees, a badge of honor–a neo-Dadaist strike against, well, whatever. Ms. Rowell writes that Mr. Polke “accorded himself a freedom from all authority except that of his own will.” Exactly. This show documents the numbing delusions of narcissism.
© 1999 Mario Naves