A Critics’ Roundtable on Sigmar Polke at MoMA
Eric Gelber, Nora Griffin, Suzanne Joelson, Drew Lowenstein, and Saul Ostrow shared their thoughts with one another about the Museum of Modern Art retrospective in lively email exchanges. What emerges is a tapestry of voices whose variety and energy matches Polke himself.
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 is on view at MoMA until August 3, 2014
NORA GRIFFIN: Since this exhibition is so vast and far-reaching, I thought it would be interesting to focus on the major polarities embodied in Polke’s work: the personal and the political; the sacred and profane; and the mystic and the materialist. Do others agree with this idea of Polke (which I believe the museum was successful in presenting) — as powerfully doubled in all he does? I thought the atrium provided a kind of “best of” Polke — from the intimate watercolor/drawings of the 60s to the gigantic, beautifully lush abstract fabric painting Season’s Hottest Trends (2003). But two works in this room really stood out for me as book-ends to his practice. Starry Heavens Cloth (1968), a tactile cotton, cardboard “painting” that functions like a cosmological self-portrait of the artist, and The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Quaeda (2002), a massive digital print on vinyl that looks like an industrial army map or poster. Are there other pairings of works (or bodies of work) in the exhibition that open up his practice?
SUZANNE JOELSON: The other pairing for me is between the private and the performative. The small journal drawings which are signed way after the fact, often without dates, were a way to think as opposed to the paintings that were clearly made for an audience. I often feel left out of his intimate work because they were not necessarily made to be seen. The bulk of his film projects were not made to be seen either, but there I am an engaged voyeur.
SAUL OSTROW: Funny – beside the weird decisions like the drawings – unlike the Brooklyn Museum show of some years ago where he was presented in an “orderly” manner, I thought the MOMA installation was more in keeping with Polke and his work – the chaos – the scale – the sense of compression seemed very connected.
JOELSON: While this show might have seemed chaotic it provided a narrative order to Polke’s output that was not in the Brooklyn Museum show. Although there are no wall texts one gets the opening atrium space, then the student work, then the early career. His dots are so much more playful and visually delirious than that programmatic method tends to be. The explosion of the Afghan room and then the settling into a studio practice as a way to travel. A final coming home to alienation as process. What distinguishes Polke from his American counterparts is his complete distrust of commerce. Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Ginsberg, Warhol et al had some irony in their awe of the abundant market but Polke was entirely distrustful. The crankiness of his stance, his refusal to maintain a look, is part of what is important in the work. I came to feel in this show that his alienation was where he knew himself. When he got comfortable in West Germany he had to travel for that sense of horror. Eventually he set up unpredictable situations in his processes to keep the sense of alienation alive at home. That is what we, who like to label, might call his “mature work.”
ERIC GELBER: I have no qualms with the avoidance of strict chronology. It is the lack of depth I mind. But this is a beef with curatorial practice. I wish they had given a large wall strictly to his works on paper. The huge show that the MoMA had in the 1990s of his works on paper was the first and best encounter I had with Polke’s work. The work in that show, almost all of which is missing here, was busy, frantic, truly eye and mind opening from a formal perspective. We also shouldn’t forget the backdrop of Nazism, which haunted almost all of Polke’s work. Not only was Polke anti-capitalist he was also anti-art to a certain extent, always undermining any painterliness by generating and canceling out compositional elements. I wish there were more works from the 70s, busy paintings with stickers and other added material. That is when his anti-capitalist spirit was truly inspired, in my opinion. Talking about dualities, the profane/mystical might be helpful in terms of iconography, but as ideas I think it is kind of silly to crucify his work on those particular crosses. Not unlike Kiefer, he had a morbid fascination with Germany’s Nazi past: the swastika was seared into his consciousness.
OSTROW: I’m not sure if it’s alienation – he reflects a very particular German experience – his work reflects post-war Germany – the period of de-Nazification, the division of East and West, the rapid rebuilding of West Germany, the tension of the Cold War – etc. and then there is also the German tradition of the artist as magician and fool – as such he makes this work against a very different background then his counterparts in the States. One needs to remember that all of Warhol’s celebs are tragic figures – I think that the idea that he is enthralled with is the public role that Warhol plays – likewise I ‘m not sure that Polke is such an outsider – when I lived in Cologne you would see him and his entourage – he was very public – the notion of the magnus is probably more applicable than that of the mystic – peyote, LSD, opium, and mescaline get one to the otherside without necessarily having anything to do with transcendence – therefore I tend to see Polke as trying to produce a type of social realism of the psyche
JOELSON: I am thinking not only of personal alienation associated with his move to West Germany at the age of 12 when most of us feel alienated from our bodies anyway, but of Brechtian alienation, innate in the engagement and denial in the work. Yes, and re: “social realism of the psyche” would you say then, getting back to Nora’s initial dualities- psychic realism and capitalist realism?
OSTROW: Perhaps what we are seeing in the Polke show is what it means to be a Stateless artist – whereas Gerhard Richter is the work of a refugee who in order to fit in becomes more patriotic than a native born citizen. Polke is like an alien who continues to identify with the old country – though if he goes back he no longer recognizes anyone and all of the places he’s familiar with are gone.
DREW LOWENSTEIN: Polke’s historical and cultural negotiation is more open to play, and wonderment than that of Kiefer or Richter. Like Kiefer, he experiments with materials and comes to believe in a traditional form of the total artwork. Pagannini, The Illusionist, and Mrs Autumn and her Two Daughters are examples. But unlike Kiefer, Polke rejects Beuysian shamanism and does not peddle the idea of recovery or regeneration from the German Nazi past. Additionally, the painting Constructivist (1968), points out Polke’s suspicion of adopting international modernist idioms to mask the past and also reflects a distrust of the art culture market. He is resistant and like Suzanne suggests alienated. His resistance and playfulness is his pathway to creative struggle and freedom. I think it’s important to remember that he doesn’t find this resistance antithetical to historical painting. He is quoted on the first page of the catalogue as saying, “even if the results look new, as far as I am concerned, as an artist I am following an academic path. I like tracking down certain pictures, techniques and procedures. It’s a way of understanding what is largely determined by tradition.”
GRIFFIN: Just to take up the thread of commerce and Pop art as seen in Polke’s work in the early 60s. I kept ruminating on the idea of an “abject” Pop art. Chocolate Painting and Biscuits (both 1964) seem so innocent, almost naively painted, with the gloss and definition of sign painting. The “abstract” paintings from the same era Jewelry,Beans,Silver Break, and Snowdrops seem edgily contemporary to me, perhaps this has to do with the paintings’ surface: colored, or patterned fabric, a recurring material for Polke. Suzanne says: “What distinguishes Polke from his American counterparts is his complete distrust of commerce. Rauschenberg, Ginsberg Warhol et al had some irony in their awe of the abundant market but Polke was entirely distrustful.” I agree here, that his images of marketable “things” are always highly personalized and never about glorifying the objects. The restraint and paint handling reminds me of John Wesley a bit. Especially the seriality of the enamel painting Socks (1963).
GELBER: Polke saying whether or not he feels alienated doesn’t help us get into the work. What artist is allowed to be anything but alienated from the history and politics of their native country? I think alienation is the default setting we expect all of our important artists to live by. Supermarkets (1976), Paganini (1981-83) and the “Color Experiments” from (1982-86) were highlights for me. John Wesley is a good call but I think Polke was more interested in the subversive qualities of the comics he stole from rather than their aesthetic qualities. He liked black outlining, like Max Beckmann did, and Polke turned towards allegory in his late work. I find Polke to be a stronger draftsman than a painter. He worked on cloth because it lent itself to collage and staining rather than nuanced layering of tones. The “Color Experiments” series are probably the most purely painterly stuff in the exhibition. In Supermarkets he is mocking consumerism, but clearly he loves the imagery he puts to use as an ideological bludgeon.
OSTROW: Polke’s work can be seen to be discursive in the sense that it is a series of dialogues with and about the very Law he has decided not to partake in – in a manner he stands beside the very traditions that would subsume him and in doing so deploys them as he wishes. I was struck by how Polke seems to engage the notion of the return not only of the repressed but of the desired – he does this by projecting one onto another – his imagery tends to be metonymic rather than metaphorical. If painting is to be about opticality – he literally paints distortion, if it is to be about process he paints process, if it is about the impossibility of narrative – he paints narratives of self-cancellation, etc. In this way he is literal without being illustrative. I’ve been reading the new translation of Kafka’s The Trial and find a parallel between Kafka’s writing and Polke’s painting in the sense that everything is always itself and its own other. If I understand it, Suzanne’s reference was to Brechtian alienation which is performative – it is a way to engage the audience in such a manner that the illusion of the theater is itself made explicit – they are distanced so that they might watch themselves being manipulated. In this sense the artist Polke may be most like is early Jasper Johns in which behind his dumb literal surfaces lurks philosophy, self-doubt and the desire to paint a figure, rather than a picture of one.
JOELSON: Regarding Eric’s statement, “I think alienation is the default setting we expect all of our important artists to live by.” As much as I resist seeing “default” or “expect all” in a sentence about art, I do agree. Is this because as a culture we are fixated on adolescence, a time of emergent sexuality and change? This is reflected in our taste for unfinished paintings from Cézanne and Manet to current work which conveys potential rather than certainty.I think it was Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books who said that the fascination with emigré writing is because anyone who has gone through adolescence knows what it is to be alienated from your childhood. Something about “best offerings” is anathema to enthusiasts of Polke’s high wire act. We are more interested in his near misses. When I saw one watchtower painting 20 years ago I thought it the worst Polke ever because it was didactic and humorless and bound to its over potent image. In this show, seeing six of them I was moved. They evoke Auschwitz but also the idea of purposeful directed looking and the anxiety of being watched. Many towers in a room seem inescapable as opposed to a lone dismissible picture in an art show, or it might be the change in times and a recent predilection toward content. I wanted to see them in a circle.
GELBER: This is a great idea – it would turn the viewer into the viewed in a literal sense. You would become self-conscious in the act of looking by becoming the surrounded object. I know that Polke wanted to conjure up feelings of foreboding with this series. The colors are dark, dreary, anti-humanist. And I did spend a lot of time in this room with them, but I found myself thinking things like, “Oh is that a shower curtain he stuck on there?” I wanted to be moved by them more than I was. I think the way we see has been changed by the computer monitor and handheld device screen. I am not convinced that this will radically alter the painting and drawing process, with regards to how viewers take them in. Certainly painters have been impacted by pixelated imagery, webpage layout, Photoshop filters, etc. Polke’s struggle with pictorial space is one of the most interesting characteristics of his work. If an artist is going to work with traditional formats how can they make something that is genuinely contemporary, or is pastiche or mimicry the only options at this point?
JOELSON: Another Polke polarity is between the barest gesture, the incidental image and the magnum opus. This was also the case in the drawing show years back. A stick of butter on one wall and the whole acid trip covering another. The underwhelming aspect of so much work invites the viewer to complete the picture, to meet it halfway. In “our moment here” everything is going on. There are a lot of little umbrellas outside and within the big tent of the art market. From artists who have to work full time to cover their rent and then have little time in the studio, to artists who imagine extensive labor will fill-in where inspiration ended, from “bring it on” to enough is enough. Ezra Pound’s modernist adage to “make it new” has been replaced by “make it extreme.” Is that a reflection of our national economy? One thing about Germany is they still have an effective middle class and they build things (cars, appliances). How does this affect art in Germany now? I loved how the sausages are simple flat foot food, and yet essentialist in form. I think we have an internally informed, biological response to that linkage.
GRIFFIN: Saul made this comparison of Polke to Johns which I find illuminating: “In this sense the artist he may be most like is early Jasper Johns in which behind his dumb literal surfaces lurks philosophy – self doubt and the desire to paint a figure, rather than a picture of one.” Of the many personas and alibis that were presented for the artist in the show, the one I was most moved by was the figure of Polke as a painter, confined to the rectangle, pigment, and fabric. The compactness and formalism of his paintings is breathtaking and really (to me) makes the performances, film footages, photographs, and even the drawings, seem lightweight and inconsequential. I understand that the show was presenting a full-blown portrait of Polke as an artist here, but I did yearn for a show that just displayed the paintings so we might focus on the most masterful aspect of his work. Llyn Foulkes, Chris Martin, and Paul Thek are three American artists I couldn’t stop thinking about as I went through the rooms. The high and low aspects of the sex and drug culture of the 60s and 70s meets the sacred temple of Modernist painting. The urge to bring painting into space itself, to have a painting transcend its physical limits, whether by alchemy (with silver nitrate crystals and meteorite resin), sheer silliness (like the Alice in Wonderland painting), or the horror of history (the watchtower series), seems to be a noble even heroic venture that few artists are involved with today.
OSTROW: Seemingly Polke offers us an alternative to pastiche or mimicry – what he offers us in place of pictures of things is an assemblage (in which each part retains its own identity while offering some aspect of itself to the whole). The effect of this is to force our minds to wander – or to multi-task – in this sense these works emphasize painting as an analog – a means to present information not only through its ability to depict things but also by means of its physical quantities. Polke demonstrates how the media continuously affects our reading of that information. There is also a persistent effort by Polke to use a single signifier to reference multiple signified – as such his images exist in a shifting “framework.” These shifts are not a function of the viewer (ie, associations) but the work’s materiality or lack of it – in this we might think of Polke’s work as functioning under the sign of Hermes – whose name is the root for hermeneutics.
LOWENSTEIN: I was not moved by the watchtower paintings. I don’t think Polke does gravitas. Suddenly Germany was thrust into an absurdist geopolitical “role” that created a new narrative that obscured German atrocities. Germany became a buffer for freedom and commerce against Soviet tyranny. It’s a mind-blowing free pass. Soviet/US tension is a gift that fell into Germany’s lap. No wonder the German public was shocked when Polke, Kiefer and others touched on the Holocaust years later. Polke’s split sense of self manifests in his acute awareness of his “role” as an Adenauer-generation artist. In a sense, he and his peers were stepping onto the world’s cultural stage as Germany’s representatives in the aftermath of German atrocities. Is the artist’s “role” one of action, escape, cynicism or dreaded consensus? Polke’s dancing between the raindrops as he plays the role of the art prankster, philosopher, and magician-escapist. This is reflected in the ambiguity, possibility, and cancellation we sense in the work. The split self, the doubling, just spills out. But he finds a new pictorial space to work in. He discovers an expanded space of transparency when he works both sides of the support and opens up a space for more light by using plastic in the late period lenticular paintings.
OSTROW: We haven’t even touched on Polke’s approach to self-referentiality in the sense of his use of analogy rather than metaphor, for instance the notion of the watch tower is not only a question of the Holocaust, but also that of guarding of borders (the east west divide)- it is also a platform from which to observe – it represents the vertical view – the overview – which is a view that unlike the horizontal view is disengaged.
GELBER: I believe this was touched on earlier by Suzanne, the act of viewing and being viewed by the watchtowers. She had in mind a Panopticon, the go-to historical reference, thanks to Foucault. I think you are absolutely right about how the vertical orientation makes the watchtowers even more object-like, mimicking the real, in the way a real watchtower sticks out on the horizon in order to assume a position of power over those standing below it. There is a black ominous doorway shape in the painting Paganini that mimics a real doorway, as if we are invited to step into the painting.
JOELSON: I always like paintings of sailboats because there is a built vessel, a soft sail and the linear structure of the rigging. Polke’s watchtowers have that formal appeal as well as much else that has been said. They engage his antagonism to modern visuality as well as to seeing and being seen. It is not just the “gravitas” of the subject but its readiness for interpretation that weights this group. They emerge indelible, an intangible memory or the defining liminal image, a jewel that won’t melt away. The various means lets them flicker in and out of the material of this world. Their appearance as memory is innate to the stencil process. Eric, beside the fact that I think you and I are switching positions, I am confused, do you think Polke was always more accessible than Rauschenberg? Rauschenberg is my first great love. A decade later when I saw Polke he seemed like a shabby dissonant response to Rauschenberg’s innate enthusiasm and harmony with the world. But I came around, just as after years of John Coltrane I came to love Ornette Coleman.
OSTROW: Another subject that I think needs to be taken up is the photograph and its reproduction. Polke comes back to the Ben-Day dots pattern over and over through his long career, like Warhol he wishes to render photography transparent and mutable.
GELBER: I think Polke’s (and Richter’s and Kiefer’s) need to break down the barriers between photography and painting/drawing goes hand-in-hand with Polke’s breaking down the barrier between drawing and painting in many works. The breaking down of compositional elements, combining different types of media, the flattening out collage effect, things discovered during Braque’s and Picasso’s analytical cubist phase, are deeply explored by Polke.
LOWENSTEIN: I think it’s a given that Polke and his peers were displaced from the Western narrative of how Modernism unfolded. Polke fell in love with Dada and Surrealism and stayed in love unconditionally. Sure, he misunderstood Pop, and merged it with Modernist-utopian ideas of art as agitation for change. But happily, dislocation and misunderstanding turned into the mother of invention and we get this wonderful art. It reminds me of a story about how the Marx Brothers were trying to steal a look at a baseball game but from their vantage point outside the stadium, they could only see action in a slice of left field. From that bit of information, they speculated and filled in the plays that they missed. Needless to say it was a more interesting version than what occurred on the field.