‘Some day we shall no longer need pictures, we shall just be happy’
Sigmar Polke’s output changed constantly throughout his career but the topic of research remained the same. His statement above from 1966 suggests art as investigation, an investigation that is required under present conditions. As such, Polke’s work can be understood as a criticism of things as they are, and specifically, modern notions of reason and instrumental rationality.
Throughout his career Polke criticised restrictive frameworks for thinking and living. In response to the atrocities of the twentieth-century, he and his contemporaries saw a need to deconstruct the culture that had created the possibility for this history to materialise. In particular, Polke was critical of causal linearity and dichotomous systems of thought. He sought antidotes to this cultural framework by embracing alternative lifestyles, subverting ideas about gender, and experimenting with drugs. This manifests itself in his work in a variety of ways. Polke’s art is formally diverse, challenging categorisation through its multiple mediums and styles. He demonstrates possibilities of representation outside of the familiar. By presenting alternative, often critical forms, his work uncovers the history that proceeds the now and that shapes our perception of the world around us.
Early on, this critical approach is evident in works such as Lösungen V (Solutions V), made in 1967. This work presents numerical sums on a blank, white background. The viewer is faced with a contradiction, the need for a ‘second-take’, a re-reading, as the sums do not present mathematically sound answers. Through the presentation of ‘incorrect’ solutions the painting brings into question the objectivity of mathematical formulae and draws attention to the axioms on which notions of mathematical objectivity rely. Similarly, Pappologie (Cardbardology) of 1968-1969 uses the formal language of family trees and genealogical studies, poignant to German history, in order to criticise the questionable content of scientific knowledge systems. By producing a genealogy of cardboard, the hermeneutic fallibility of works such Ernst Kretschmer’s Physique and Character, which classified individuals by personality type, becomes visible. Polke re-appropriates this history of positivism and subverts it in order to move away from a didactic and authoritarian voice and present an alternative language in opposition to perceived notions of comprehension and rationality. The viewer is made aware of the limitations of this form of knowledge and by extension that which is ignored or left out.
The formal realisation of Polke’s ideas takes a less oppositional stance in later work. Instead, his art becomes a more expansive search for a formal language that can articulate an alternative conception of rational knowledge. This is particularly evident in the triptych first shown at Documenta 7 in 1982, Negativwert I-III Alkor, Mizar, Aldebaran (Negative Value I-III). These abstract pieces cut through the mass of imagery and experimentation in Polke’s catalogue up to this point and demonstrate a more complex, nuanced position of critique. The three paintings are formally beautiful, each large-scale canvases with colours and textures that invite engagement. Their unique appearance relies on the unusual technique of painting Polke used to produce them. This involved applying white primer on to the canvas followed by violet pigment. This was subsequently covered with a dissolving medium and brushed with dispersion paint, turning much of the violet to bronze. The resulting appearance is difficult to grasp. The paintings are visually impermanent, and refuse stable reception. They are both tranquil in their swathes of vibrant colour, yet dynamic in their shifting hues and altering form. The paintings actually appear to change in front of the viewer’s eyes as the light shifts and dances across the canvas, from bronze, to gold, to purple. Details reveal themselves, points of pressure and outline. The paintings contain movement in both their material and the traces of the artistic production. Like his later Watchtower II images, these paintings embody the presence of history in their very being. As Marcelle Polednik suggests, the present continues to inform the past, in that the atmosphere, light, and heat of a space physically alter the paintings. These paintings are active. They are not fixed. The work is instead charged with a fluid content that avoids the fixed position of the rational systems Polke seeks to undermine. Instead the viewer is able to witness change, an altering position, as new formal outcomes are realised.
Through their ability to be in the world yet not positively manifest, the paintings seem to present a mediation that is more receptive to time, sensorial input, and experience than any fixed formulations of knowledge. Polke’s title for the series, Negative Value, seems to confirm this idea. The title places the work in opposition to a ‘positive’ value, as something other, inverse, alternative. In Negative Dialectics of 1966 Theodor Adorno suggests that a more successful, dialectic knowledge would embody ‘the consistent sense of non-identity’, grappling with that which stands outside the current state or concept. By creating an image with an impermanence unlike usual expectations of artwork the paintings challenge conventional forms of communication, highlighting possibilities and outcomes that normally remain hidden. As Polke describes, also in 1966, ‘Maybe I want to show how dependent we are on existing forms, how unfree our thoughts and actions are and that we are continually resorting to what exists, or that we are in fact obliged to do so consciously or unconsciously….it can also be irony, laziness, incapacity, or dullness.’ Polke realised that understanding was based on the recognition of similarity as opposed to real critical engagement with experience. In contrast to this he wanted his paintings to be difficult, to be interrogated, to open up a dialogue for questioning the present. By presenting alternatives and contradictions that retain legibility and understanding, these paintings highlight the redundancy of employing the familiar. These preoccupations are encapsulated in a later work Die Dinge sehen wie sie sind (Seeing things as they are) from 1991. This painting presents several forms of rational representation (3D modelling, the canvas, the written word, transparency) which, when partnered with their provocative title, push the viewer into seeing the visual framework under which content is ultimately truncated.
Polke has been quoted as saying that images can vibrate. In Thus spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche describes a stammer, a type of vibration between the Dionysian and Apollonian dichotomy, something that can provoke direct emotion from the spectator. An arresting point of reflection that art, particularly the more abstract in form, offers beyond written and verbal language. In this way the works can be seen as a point of mediation between the present as it is and the possibilities of that which could be. Arato and Gebhardt in their work on cultural theory suggest that ‘the authentic art continuously confronts a given reality with what it is not, but could very well be’. New knowledge can be created from the spaces around works such as these. The individual paintings, Alkor, Mizar, Aldebaran, make reference to astral constellations, stars that are held in relation to each other as individual points of reference within an overall field of space. This is what Polke wanted to create with his work. Rather than conclude a certainty or fixed understanding about the series Negative Value, he presents a more fluid, language of communication and a space is left open for a multi-layered field of responses, subverting the notion of one meaning, one understanding, one truth. The changing picture plane creates a mesh of histories and layers that bring into question any notion of certainty, as Polke describes below:
‘Connecting everything to everything, establishing an endless rush of association until they turn against one another’
This creates new webs of knowledge that encompass a larger capacity for an unreified relationship to experience. Looked at more broadly Polke’s overall output can be seen in this light, with works speaking to each other in a dialogue whose complexities are multifarious. Polke continued to produce abstract, alchemic work right up until his death in 2010, creating paintings that combine the eternal with the temporal and portray the continuous investigation of rationality beyond the instrumental. By ‘seeing things as they are’ and showing that which is ignored, Polke’s pictures, and their interstitial relationships, point toward a knowledge that is more holistic and meaningful. If, as Polke himself suggests, this form of knowledge is embraced, the mediation would no longer be required as instead it will have led to a present in which, through its flexibility and clarity, we can ‘just be happy’.
Brown, R et al, polke/richter: richter/polke, (Christie’s London: 2014).
Halbreich, K et al, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, (MOMA, New York: 2013).
Lange-Berndt, P & D. Rubel (eds.), Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois! : Comrades and Contemporaries, the 1970s, (Walther Konig: 2011).
Polke, S & M. Hentschel (eds.), Sigmar Polke: the three lies of painting, (Cantz: 1997).
Polke, S & G. Richter, Exhibition text for polke/richter: richter/polke galerie h, Hanover, 1966, reproduced in H.U. Obrist ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings and Interviews 1962–93 London: 1995.
Adorno, T, 1966, Negative Dialectics, (Continuum, New York: 1973).
All images © Estate of Sigmar Polke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany et al.