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Jorg Heiser. "Cosmic Rays." Frieze, October 2007.

2-7
The work of Sigmar Polke, one of the most
important artists of postwar Germany,
was this year the subject of two major
exhibitions. His new cycle of paintings,
Axial Age' also formed a key part of the
2007 Venice Biennale. Polke's body of work
since the mid-1960s has been consistently
iconoclastic, enigmatic and technically
innovative by JorgHeiser

October 2007 | frieze I 219

2-7
y-:.-;-:.:,V -••'••-•••• y •••-• '

Zwei 'Steine'feiern
Doppelbocbzeit
in Don Quichotte (Don Quixote, 1968) the fig- But back in the mid-1960s, when Polke (Two 'Stones' Celebrate
ures are almost drowned in black and white first used dots, the variety of Pop he a Double Marriage)
obscurity, but the picture successfully relies pioneered together with Gerhard Richter, 1984
Resin and varnish on
on our ability to project the familiar angular Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg (better canvas
silhouette of the Knight of the Sad Coun- known later as the gallerist Konrad Fischer) 199x260 cm
tenance into it nevertheless. In Polizeisch- was drained of popping colours and multi-
wein (Police Pig, 1986) we see a sniffer pig dimensional commodity allure, wrapped
wearing a German policeman's hat, while its instead in the grey winter coat of West higher being. And the famous painting
supervisor proudly crouches next to it; his German middle-class culture. They called Hohere Wesen befahlen: recbte obere Ecke scbwarz
face is a white emptiness in the otherwise it 'Capitalist Realism', a strategically ironic malen! (Higher Beings Command: Paint the
dotted surrounding. And in a work from phrase playing the forced naivety of Socialist Upper Right Corner Black!, 1969) uses the
this year, the title of which translates as 'You Realism - idealizing the people and their visual language of painterly abstraction - just
Experience Countless Moments of Joy in leaders - against the forced sophistication a plain white field with a black corner. Yet in
Your Private Life Today' (Sie erleben beute im of the then still hegemonic 50s' styles of combination with the mock-military tone of
privaten Bereich zahlreicbe Glucksmomente) - a abstraction - made as though the people the sentence - written, Conceptual-art style,
name that sounds as though it's taken from didn't exist. in Courier font underneath - the abstract
a silly celebrity interview - black and white In the ensuing years, more than anyone surface begins to recall Adolf Hitler's diago-
cherubs push and drag a chariot, only visible else in the group, Polke went beyond the lim- nal fringe. Obviously, both Conceptualists
in fragments floating on an iridescent colour its of that point of departure, making ironies and Minimalist painters would have rejected
plane. In Siegen, hung across from a large collide like dodgems. His series of works any connection with pseudo-spiritual 'higher
panoramic window, the colours in the pic- dictated by 'higher beings' play on so many beings', even more so the idea of acting under
ture changed from dark purple to turquoise different levels that the one on which they the duress of totalitarian rigidity.
to lavender and back, depending on the ridicule the cliche of artistic genius and di- But as much as Polke pitted the artist-
angle from which you looked (Polke presum- vine inspiration seems almost minor. In one as-genius cliche against the normative
ably used the kind of two-tone pigments that of the offset-printed photos included in the power of avant-garde schools - whether 50s'
create a similar effect in custom car finishes): 1968 series 'Hohere Wesen befehlen' (Higher abstraction or 60s' Conceptual and Minimal
a continuous back-and-forth between super- Beings Command) the artist stands inside the art - his invocation of higher spheres went
flatness and ungraspable multi-dimensional- split bole of an old tree, with eyes closed, the beyond a mere impulse to comment satiri-
ity that he has modulated eloquently in ever title 'The Willow, For My Sake, Has Grown cally on art doctrines. Of course, building a
new forms over the decades. Up Hollow', suggests that he himself is that simple hut-like grid structure out of wooden

October 2007 I frieze I 221

2-7 3
laths with potatoes placed at the intersections which he scratches himself and uses a pen- Right from the start Polke stretched his
(Objekt Kartoffelhaus, Object Potato House, dulum. The resulting film Derganze Korper work between the clarity of Pop and the
1967) is a funny comment on the Minimalist fiihltsich leicht und mochtefliegen(The Whole idiosyncrasies of Fluxus: playing dumb yet
grid, combining geometric precision with the Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly, 1969), hinting at possession of secret knowledge.
bulbous dumbness of the tuber, but it also made in collaboration with Christof Kohl- The idea of contradictory humours, or
cheekily alludes to Wilhelm Reich's 'orgone hofer, is a 35-minute flight of fancy in which, moods, at play in the same work definitely
accumulator', with its connotations of inspi- well, Polke scratches himself and uses a has something to do with the psychedelic
rational energy fields. And while Apparat, pendulum. He also reads from the esoteric leanings of the era (in the '70s Polke spent
mil Jem eine Kartoffel die andere umkreisen kann 19th-century grimoires The Sixth and Sev- time in Afghanistan, where at that time
(An Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can enth Books of Moses (almost inaudibly as he hippies from Europe and the USA were
Orbit Another, 1969). built using a small mo- keeps giggling all the time) and poses as the flocking - it's hard to believe now, but
tor on a wooden stool, may imply a reference letter X, with parallel lines of white string Kabul was then seen as a kind of oriental
to Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913), it connecting the legs of his trousers with the Amsterdam): the spaced-out stoner find-
is also simply a deadpan model of a moon arms of his shirt, a DIY astral Spiderman. ing something completely banal suddenly
orbiting a planet, dramatically and comically The point of all this silliness seems to be to mysteriously special and unique. And
confusing scales. infuse the 'small acts with big effect' ethos whatever substances may have helped
In a similar 'poor' vein, Polke, when asked of Fluxus performance with the mind- to unravel or induce these humours in
to participate in Konrad Fischer's museum expanding aspirations of beatnik and hippie Polke originally, they seem to have stayed
exhibition 'Konzeption/Conception' (1969) culture: in other words, to take control of with him until today, incessantly worked
the body and yet let go at the same time. through as his 'material'.
iiiL-euerkusen, suggested he make a film in at
2221 frieze I October 2007
The rules of attention sibylline quips ('Mr Polke, why do you al-
ways try out new things?" 'It's got something
personal idiosyncrasies of their creator, there
still remains the nagging feeling with Polke's
'For the second day of installing, Sigmar to do with the fact that life goes on.'1). work that something might drag you back to
Polke has given us a hint that journalists At this summer's Venice Biennale, Polke the question of whether that person is, if not
may perhaps be allowed to photograph and exhibited his impressive cycle of paint- 'behind*, then in these works. So let's start at
film him at work," read an email I received ings 'Axial Age' (2005-7). Brooding at the the beginning.
this summer. The press announcement was centre of the Italian Pavilion, their semi-
made on the occasion of Polke receiving the transparent fabric - stretched onto lath
Rubens Prize, accompanied by an exhibi- constructions, soaked in lacquer and covered The whole body feels
tion at the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst in with pure violet pigment - gave off a golden
iridescence, as though sheer stockings had
light and wants to fly
Siegen, Germany. Should I make the six-hour
journey from Berlin to a town in the middle been smattered with honey and cosmetics 'I wish either my father or my mother, or in-
of nowhere on the off chance that Polke - or rather, given the vast size, as though a deed both of them, as they were in duty both
might grant us an audience? 1 could imagine sunset sky was reflected in. a deep, dark lake. equally bound to it, had minded what they
the eager camera teams and microphone- Why rush to Siegen in pursuit of an artist were about when they begot me.' As much
wielders bustling around the artist, absorbed known for his guarded privacy and capri- as it bespeaks the libertine disposition of an
in deciding where each work should go. He ciousness when there is so much to look at 18th-century country vicar named Laurence
would probably ignore many of the ques- in the work? After all, it wasn't certain that Sterne starting his Life and Opinions of Tris-
tions thrown at him and respond to only a Polke would even show up. Months earlier, tram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67)3 with mum
someone involved in preparing a retrospec- and dad having sex, there is a similar audac-
few, either with enigmatic gestures (a local
tive of the artist's work at Museum Frieder ity in the first line of a biographical note
Cologne newspaper later reported that Polke
Burds, Baden-Baden had mentioned that Polke published in 1976: 'The fact of my birth
answered the question 'Are you the great
the artist had not returned calls for weeks. would otherwise be negligible for my later
alchemist?' by throwing polystyrene packag-
In May The New York Times profiled Polke in production, if it wasn't for the poor eyesight
ing chips over his shoulder like confetti) or the run-up to Venice - nothing comparable that I have had since then.''' Because of this
had appeared in German papers for some handicap (a not entirely negligible one for
years. Yet all the article included were a few an aspiring visual artist) Polke was always
of Polke's Delphic utterances ('There is green forced to move his nose very close to printed
light and red light. Then there is black light, halftone images and just saw 'lots of little
which is mostly danger.'), cursory impres- dead black dots'.s This had a truly sublimat-
sions of his studio and a quote from John ing effect, however, as young Sigmar literally
Baldessari, uttered in 1990 and passed off as hit on what would later become a central
new. 1 It seemed a good idea to concentrate subject of his painterly practice: the equally
on the art. spaced dots of varying size that compose
images in reprographic print. Of course, if
The Siegen exhibition, which I visited a truth be told, it was also possibly American
few weeks after the press call, was a remark- Pop art - namely Roy Lichtenstein's dot
ably lavish array of key moments from the paintings - that were instructive. From 1963
past alongside current work buzzing with onwards Polke's approach was distinctive in
new techniques and ideas. Together with the several ways, perhaps most notably in that
Baden-Baden retrospective (which toured to 'mistakes', whether copied printing errors
MUMOK, Vienna), it seemed that there was a or paint spills during the manual transcrip-
good deal to say not only about the dialectics tion from source material to canvas, were a
of time and space, seeing and physicality, welcome part of the process, unmistakably
image and object, literalness and hermeti- marking the flatness of the picture plane.
cism in Polke's work, but also about the point
at which they all converged: dimensionality Polke has never fully abandoned the dots:
and - an obvious element curiously absent even today they remain his shorthand for
in some of the most well-informed writing the abundance of both popular and esoteric
about Polke - humour. And yet, following in imagery throughout the centuries since the
the 20th-century tradition of New Criticism, advent of printing technology, and the mind-
with the full knowledge that art works can, if boggling richness of public imagination they
not better, be understood abstracted from the indicate. Three examples from three decades:

Due to poor eyesight, as a


child Polke was forced to move
his nose very close to printed
images and just saw l o t s of
little dead black dots'; these
would later become a central
subject of his painting.
Above:
Don Quicbotte
(Don Quixote)
1968
Paint on hessian
81x61 cm
Far right:
Right: Kartoffelmtttcbine
Objekt Kartaffrlbuu* (Potato Machine)
(Object Potato House) 1909
1967 Wood, metal, motor.
Wood and potatoes potatoes
250x200x200 c m 8 0 x 4 0 x 4 0 cm
2- 7
220 I frieze | October 2007
Tables Turning patterns of his dot paintings 'on the level of
evocation',* yet not in actual 3D space until
In the 1970s, in his farmhouse near his innovation of translucent, resin-drenched
Dusseldorf, Polke experimented with photo- polyester supports in the late '80s. These
graphic dark-room techniques, deliberately allowed the viewer to see elements literally
ignoring the standard rules: 'dropping the and not just virtually behind the surface of
wrong chemicals onto the paper, turning on the painting, and Polke to explore the pos-
the light during development, brushing the sibilities of 'polyphonic space'10 - of physical
developer on selectively, using exhausted and illusory space being layered and locked
fixer'.6 The 'mistakes' turned into inven- in tension. Polke has especially made use of
tive techniques: for example, he started to the stretcher bars as elements that struc-
fold the paper during development because ture - and sometimes dupe - that which is
the trays were too small for larger prints, in front of them. In DerRitterll (Knight II,
but the welcome effect was that the image 1992), for example, a knight in armour sits
became obscured by blossoming chemical on a stool, contemplating a shoe he holds in
stains along the folds. This fitted well with front of a log fire. The laths connect his head,
Polke's psychedelic exuberance and inter- elbow and knee with the shoe and the fire, Sie erleben brute im privaten
Bereicb zablreicbe Gliicksmomente
est in spatial juxtaposition (the flat, folded delineating the viewing axes of the composi-
(You Experience Countless
paper producing the other-worldly clouds), tion while pressing the geometrical depiction Moments of Joy in Your Private
but it also harked back to the early days of of the space behind the knight against the Life Today)
photography, revisiting a time when the new 2007
technology was considered a medium in Mixed media on fabric
225x300 cm
more than one sense - as a means to summon
ghosts. Exposing surfaces to experimental Right from the start,
mixtures of substances and light fed into
Polke's painting, further fuelled by his ambi- Polke his work
tious research into ancient and new pigments
and paint during trips to Australia and Opposite;
South-east Asia; just in time for the return of Pop and the idiosyneracies Tischeriicken
(Table Turning)
Scbildpatt
(Tortoise-shell)
painting in the '80s.
of Fluxus. 1981
Paint on fabric with
1989
Sealant and varnish on
Made on the back of all this, Tischeriicken wooden stretcher polyester
(Table Turning, 1981) has been described as a 205^200 cm 130x150 cm
breakthrough painting, although it actu-
ally exemplifies several kinds of literal and
metaphorical breakthroughs. There is the
brownish-red furnishing fabric, which acts
as the 'canvas' and slips through the lower
end of the dark wooden frame it is stretched
on like a fastened tablecloth (which, with
its repetitive pattern of a gently curved and
closed form, it could well be). The lower hori-
zontal bar of the frame, however, is mounted
in such a manner that it juts out from the
wall as though it was a windowsill with a
curtain stuck under it, letting the painting
flip between the table and window associa-
tion, between object and image. This move-
ment is reflected by a large irregular puddle
of white paint spilled on the cloth, apparently
applied when the painting was horizontal, so
that the oozing of the paint could be control-
led by jacking its sides up or down; it is also
reflected by the fact that on top of this puddle
there is the black outline of a 'flying' table.
The tables in this work are, of course,
those used for a seance, and the white spills
directly reminiscent of ectoplasm J Yet the
seance table was also Karl Marx's oft-cited
metaphor for the strange machinations of
commodity fetishism: for as soon as an
ordinary wooden table 'steps forth as a
commodity, it is changed into something
transcendent. It not only stands with its feet
on the ground, but, in relation to all other
commodities, it stands on its head, and
evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque
ideas, far more wonderful than "table-turn-
ing" ever was.' 8 Polke - pointedly at a time
when painting resurged as a particularly
sought-after commodity - seemed to juggle
these different levels of meaning at once,
while making sure that none of them became
too securely fixed.
Charles W. Haxthausen, in his essay for
the forthcoming Siegen catalogue, argues
that during the '60s Polke established a
potentially infinite pictorial space in the

October 20071 frieze 1223


2-7 6
picture plane. Yet at the same time they seem as arsenic, meteor dust or purple dye derived
comically to emphasize the question of just from snails. All of which has inevitably given
why he is looking at a shoe this way in the rise to the widespread idea of Polke as the
first place, as though he is about to roast it on great alchemist.12
the fire and eat it. Polke's healthy antidote to this kind of
Polke's 'polyphonic spaces' are created not mysticism is a mock dumbness, something
only by layering physical and illusory space often curiously absent in this line of critical
but also by playing around with the relative assessment. Could it possibly be that he's
positions of things within these respective a self-taught expert on alchemy and can
spaces. 'Excentric positionality' is what, in eloquently cite it, yet with concerns in mind
1928, the philosopher Helmuth Plessner that differ radically from those of alche-
termed the ability of humans to reflect on mists? Just the way that you can't assume,
their position in relation not only to their en- because he has made prominent use of
vironment but also to themselves, as though bricks, that Carl Andre is a bricklayer? There
stepping outside the centre of their own body. are knowledgeable readings of the coded
Crucially, Plessner links this idea directly to allusions to alchemy present in a picture
the phenomenon of uncontrollable laughter such as Ztnei 'Steine'feiern Doppelhochzeit (Two
or weeping - signs of the body reacting to 'Stones' Celebrate a Double Marriage, 1984),
ruptures in its reflective routine.11 for example, in which a sketchily outlined
Polke awards his works this precarious man and woman - with the title of the piece
written across them - bend down to pick
status of'excentricity'. Like the potatoes
up a stone, the scene mirrored beneath as
acting as planets, his works start to orbit
though reflected in water. Pointing out the
themselves, shifting between micro- and
references to the idea of alchemic conjuga-
macrocosm. In the series 'Negativwert'
tion (joining elements in transformation)
(Negative Value, 1962) one can sense how the and to the symbolism of the stone, it is not
experimental application of violet pigments even mentioned in these readings that there
and red lead under-painting creates a flicker- is simple slapstick at work in the fact that the
ing not just of optical colour (between violet, two will inevitably bang their heads together
blue, olive and gold) but also of space: from when bending down simultaneously.«
the ultra-flatness of an impenetrable surface
- an oxidizing metal coating - through the Another example is Polke's major piece
modest spatiality of layers of paint and faint Laterna Magica (1988-96). It quotes, in one of
figurative allusions to the vertiginous depths its translucent, glass-window-like images, an
of cosmic nebulae. illustration from the 17th-century Mutus Liber
(the 'silent book' depicting, by pictures alone,
the secrets of alchemy) of a woman and a
Double Marriages man, putting equal measures of sulphur
'What is below is like what is above; what and mercury into a flask that is located in a
is above is like what is below', is the famous part of the image that Polke 'stained' red as
dictum of Hermes Trismegistos, the imagi- though with the heat of a flame. Seen in the
nary Graeco-Egyptian father of alchemy context of some of the other 'windows', the
and central figure of Hermeticism. It is theme of transformation remains central.
one of those typically tautological insights Like slides stuck together, motifs are super-
that hover between profundity (there is a imposed as though they were time-travellers
correspondence and interaction at work passing each other in a wormhole-, a Baroque
between micro- and macrocosm that needs mermaid adorned with pearls seems to be
to be explored) and dumbness (above, below, chatting with a caricature '50s' bald gentle-
whatever). Polke has made pieces directly man; lizards lounging in front of a city wall
referring to Trismegistos: notably he used (quoted from a well-known cartoon by J.J.
fragmented reproductions of a 15th-century Grandville) are being watched over by two
floor mosaic in Sienna Cathedral, depict- toy Transformer robot-dinosaurs straight
ing Trismegistos granting the gift of writing from the '80s.

Could it be possible that Polke is an - albeit the other way round, from sad to
expert on alchemy, yet has radically great. If one understands alchemy as a
technology (albeit a pre-modern one), he
different concerns from those of simply does the same thing to it as he does to
Above right: modern reproduction technologies, which is
alchemists? Just as you can't assume, Forward (Axial Age)
to divert and mistreat them.
2007
because he's made use of bricks, that Mixed media and
pigment on fabric
isal 300x480 cm Seeing Rays
Polke's latest development is his 'Linsen-
bilder' (Lens Paintings, 2006-7), first shown
and legal doctrine, for a set of four paintings But where do these transformations lead? in Siegen. Having previously made use of
('Hermes Trismegistos I-IV, 1995). He also Despite its excessive secretiveness, alchemy 3D hologram technology for a light-box
has repeatedly made reference to the codes was intended to yield results helpful in commission in the Berlin Reichstag in 1999.
and symbols of alchemy (naming, for exam- achieving a goal. Polke's transformations, Polke kept trying to achieve a similar effect
ple, his 1986 German Pavilion in Venice Ath- on the contrary, are held in limbo; there will by purely manual means.« The solution was
anor', after the alchemical furnace of trans- never be a resolution. In Sterne's Tristram to create a layer of structure gel - a filling
formation). And - probably most crucially Shandy the naming of his newly born pro- material normally used to thicken acrylic
- he has made quasi-scientific explorations tagonist goes wrong owing to a mistake; paint - and undulate it by evenly sliding a
into how chemical processes of transforma- his intended name, Trismegistus ('thrice- long, saw-toothed scraper over the surface.
tion could become painterly processes of greatest'), ends up as Tristram ('sad sack'). Most of the results - the transparent layer
transformation, making use of materials such Polke's 'alchemy' has gone similarly awry being directly applied to a previously painted

224 I frieze I October 2007


• -

••.'•?v.;. .': ,.•• : \

IIIIIP

picture - look at first as though someone sometimes speckled with bubbles of yellow that appears from the sky but an onslaught
has forgotten to take the painting out of the and pink. Two men - depicted in the style of silly, Casper-like ghosts. Finally, in another
bubble-wrap. But then it becomes apparent of an old engraving - are in an open field, amber-coloured variation, covered not with
that in most instances the surface of that watching a strange comet-like appearance the 'lens' but with a lacquered fabric akin to
'wrap' has been painted on, sometimes with a in the sky above them; the seated figure ges- honeycomb, we finally get to see the spirit in
wash of white, sometimes with black outlines tures with his hand towards it, while the one the sky - not a comet but a dragon.
of figures. The light is broken in a sort of standing, as though struck not by lightning These are all variations, as Haxthausen's
prismatic way, further complicated by these but by rapture, bends backwards on his essay points out, of a scene originally from
applications of paint, and although looking at walking cane. Their gaze is emphasized by an engraving in a book by the monk Johann
these 'lenses' may not result in a clear back- cones of lines emanating from an indistin- Zahn, Oculus artificialis teledioptricus, sive
and-forth between two images, it certainly guishable point somewhere between or above telescopium (Teledioptric Artifical Eye, or
lets parts of the scene shift in and out of focus their eyes. Telescope), published in 1685.1 Zahn had pio-
as though through veils and blinds. Another work based on the same source neered the principle of combining lenses of
In Siegen the series 'Strahlen Sehen' erases the actual appearance in the sky; there different focal length, a principle he himself
(Seeing Rays. 2007) was exhibited in a small are just the titular 'seeing rays' disappear- adopted for the camera obscura and which is
room, hung on the side walls so that on ing into white blankness. The scene, more still used in telephoto lenses today. With the
entering you would probably first approach obviously than the first one, is manipulated picture he meant to illustrate the phenome-
it from a sharp angle, and thanks to the 'lens' by jogging the image source during scan- non that a lit object would be seen differently
effect - not adhered directly to the painted ning in a photocopier, a manipulation that from different angles, depending on the way
surface, as with most of the other 'lens paint- exaggerates the standing man's rapturous the 'visual rays' would hit the eye.16 Yet why
ings', but framed and fixed in front of it - it pose to the point of cartoonish hysteria. would the object have to be a dragon flying
would gradually emerge from a milky fog. However, this time it's not a comet -like thing in the sky, rather than, say, an inanimate

October 2007 j frieze I 225

2-7
object on top of a hill? Perhaps Zahn wanted
to point out how fantastic the phenomenon
Zizek's The Parallax View (2006) - a book that
Polke came across after having finished his
Guardian of the
of vision actually is, but the irony is that series.17 Zizek defines parallax as the 'ap- Threshold
the depiction of a mythical beast inevitably parent displacement of an object (the shift
undermines the validity of a statement about of its position against a background), caused If you were looking for the artist in these
everyday experience. Polke plays with this by a change in observational position'.18 He pictures - a representation of Polke's own
point, letting the dragon disappear for the argues that the object is not just the passive way of looking (his creative process) and
most part. This is not least a comedy of see- element in this rupture of 'clean' vision, but being looked at (as a celebrated artist) -
ing and being seen, and what seems at stake actually the 'active' part - like Zahn's dragon you might make him out not as one of the
here is parallax, the optical phenomenon - a reversal of the conventional understand- gentlemen but rather as the disappearing
that provides the starting-point for Slavoj ing of the object being passively gazed at. 1 ' dragon or the ghosts that suddenly appear
out of the mist. Counter to the ordinary
lenticular images on postcards and tags, the
'Seeing Rays' paintings are not depend-
Polke's eclecticism makes him look ent on a clear A-B structure (eye open,
like the Postmodern artist. However, eye closed) but are suspended in between:
never quite A, never quite B. It's the kind of
maybe he is in fact an artist who abeyance that, together with Polke's obvi-
ous eclecticism, inevitably makes him look
realizes that modernity was never like the Postmodern artist (there is a whole
truly enlightened about itself in the Der Hitter 11
(Knight II)
volume from 1996 entitled Sigmar Polke:
Back to Postmodernity20). However, maybe
first place • 1992
Resin and Polke is not really Postmodern but rather,
varnish on in line with Bruno Latour's polemical as-
polyester sertion that 'we have never been modern'21,
300x225 cm an artist who realizes that modernity was
never truly enlightened about itself in the
first place - and thus not modern. The
distinctions it made between nature and
culture, things and humans, are denials of
the fact that it has nonetheless produced
hybridizations between the two anyway
(climate change, for instance, or sex change)
Polke, one could say, deconstructs binary
oppositions, albeit not just rhetorically
but practically. His 'misuse' of technology
and alchemy would consequently be not a
return to the pre-modern but rather a leap
forward into a kind of modern that has yet
to be established.

Possibly the closest you get to a neat


definition of Polke's oeuvre is what Peter
Schjeldahl described as 'an art of cosmic
pratfalls - or rather, cosmic prat-free-falls,
which never encounter the embarrassing
but reassuring security of a floor'.22 Indeed,
it's as though, after having played mock-
dumb for long enough, Polke switched in
the '80s to playing wise-and-in-possession-
of-secret-knowledge, yet leaving enough
hints - sometimes disclosing his sources
or methods, for example - that decipher-
ing the enigmas in the work was not the
same as actually experiencing and compre-
hending it. Inversions of proportions and
positions, visual angles and dimensions,
are there in the pieces, but not necessarily
always in their iconographic 'content'.
One painting in Siegen featured a large
black and white scene of three laughing
nudists (apparently a Danish snapshot
taken from a book about the history of
naturist movements2^); two men running
away from a woman carrying a pitchfork,
garlanded by a floral patterned textile
and blocked at the bottom by two bars of
black snakeskin fabric. It's called Hiiter der
Schwelle (Guardian of the Threshold, 2004).
There are allusions in image and material
to the expulsion from Paradise and, in the
title, to the mystical figure guarding the
spiritual access to other-worldly spheres. So
one could draw the conclusion that maybe
Polke himself is the guardian of the thresh-
old, controlling access to a notable number
of key works (the Raschdorf Collection,
which loaned much of the older work to the J9

2261 frieze | October 2007


show, is named after his aunt Else Raschdorf, Hermetiscbe Kunst im 20. Jabrhundert. Antonin Artaud, 19 Ibid.
whom Polke credits with introducing him to Yves Klein. Sigmar Polke, Verlag der B u c h h a n d l u n g 20 David Thistlewood (ed.), Sigmar Polke: Back to
Walther Konig. Cologne. 2003 Postmodernity, Liverpool University Press, 1996
photography1*), his studio, his library and 13 Seegers, op. cit., p p . 152-3. a n d H a n s Belting, 21 B r u n o Latour, We Have Never Been Modern,
himself. Yet the painting's slapstick moment 'Ober Liigen und a n d e r e Wahrheiten d e r Malerei'. in H a r v a r d University Press. Cambridge. MA, 1993
makes spelling out these references, read- Sigmar Polke: Die drei Liigen der Malerei, Kunst- u n d 22 Peter Schjeldahi. "The Daemon a n d Sigmar Polke'.
ings and ruminations sound like a laborious Ausstellungshalte d e r Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Sigmar Polke, San Francisco M u s e u m of Modern
a n d Nationalgalerie im H a m b u r g e r Bahnhof Berlin, Art, 1990, p. 19
explanation of the joke. Is someone guard- 1997. p p . 140-42 23 According to Eva Schmidt, director of M u s e u m
ing their chastity here or rather the doors of 14 Cf. H a x t h a u s e n , op. cit. fur Gegenwartskunst Siegen, in conversation with
perception? Either way, there is laughter. 15 Ibid. the author, August 2007
16 Ibid. 24 Cf. Reiner Speck, 'On the Difficulty of
17 Ibid. A p p r o a c h i n g Sigmar Polke', in Sigmar Polke, op. cit.,
Jorg Heiser is co-editor of frieze. 18 Slavoj Zizek. Tbe Parallax View, MIT Press, p. 23, a n d Paul Schimmel, 'Polkography'. in Sigmar
With thanks to Bice Curiger, Charles W. Cambridge. MA. 2006, p . 17 Polke Phototoorks. op. cit., p. 58
Haxthausen, Eva Schmidt and Deborah
Biirgel for their crucial help and advice.

1 H e i d r u n Wirth. 'BihJer k o n n e n tanzen u n d singen'.


Kolniscbe Rundschau, 22 June 2007
2 Carol Vogel, 'The Alchemist's Moment', Tbe New
Tork Times, 27 May 2007
3 Quoted from the Penguin Books edition, 1997, p. 5
4 Authored on Polke's behalf by Friedrich W.
C
Heubach, 'Sigmar Polke', in B.H.D. Buchloh
(ed.), Sigmar Polke. Bilder, Tiicber, Objekte, exh. cat.,
Kun st ha UP Tubingen/Kunsthalle Diisseldorf/Van
Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1976, p p . 127-34
5 Ibid., p. 127
6 Maria Morris Hambourg, 'Polke's Recipes for
Arousing the Soul', in Sigmar Polke Pbotoworks: When
Pictures Vanish, T h e M u s e u m of Contemporary A r t
Los Angeles, 1995. P- 4i
7 Cf. Reiner Speck,'Das Triumvirat der Sammler', Above;
in Polke: EineRetrospektive, exh. cat-, M u s e u m Frieder Hitter der Scbwelte
Burda. Baden-Baden, and Museum M o d e m e r Kunst, (Guardian of the
Vienna. 2007. p . HO Threshold)
8 Karl Marx. Capital, vol. 1. International Publishers, 2003
New York. 1967, p . 71 Mixed media on
9 Charles W e r n e r Haxthausen, 'Space Explorations: fabric
On Sigmar Polke's "Lens Paintings"', in exh. cat., 300x500 cm
M u s e u m fur Gegenwartskunst Siegen and Dumont
Verlag Cologne, 2007 (forthcom ing) Right:
10 Ibid. Untitled
11 Cf. Helmuth Plessner, Laughing and Crying: A 1999
Study of tbe Limits 0/Human Behaviour, trans. James Acrvlic and
S. Churchill and Marjorie Grene, Northwestern metallic paint on
University Press. Evanston, 1970 paper
• <<-.f-- .-
12 For example Ulli Seegers, Alcbemie des Sehens: 150x200 cm

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