“Polke and Gerhard Richter represent for me two pinnacles of postwar German art, akin to the relationship and position of Robert Rauschenberg—the subject of a not-to-be missed Tate Modern show through April 2—and Jasper Johns in the U.S. Polke and Rauschenberg were sloppy and experimental (and are now dead) while their living counterparts, Richter and Johns, are more controlled and (seemingly) erudite….
“We don’t need pictures, we don’t need painters, we don’t need artists,” he said. “We don’t need any of that. What do you get out of an artist?” A self-negating nihilist, Polke nevertheless never quit. “Art is cannibalism,” he noted, and it actually, physically did him in. The art business, which Polke assiduously shied away from, has a tendency to eat away at your innards too. In the end, Polke had no kryptonite to shield him from the well-known, deadly effects of his chosen poisons. It saddens me to think of what might he might have done for another 10 to 20 with such gifts and proclivities. Polke wasn’t a dot, inasmuch as we are all specs in the scheme of things. He was significantly more—a scientist, magician, and great artist who strove to fail as much as succeed. Jesus may have died for our sins, but Polke perished for our pleasures (and enlightenment).” [Kenny Schachter on Polke and Richter]
“Sometime in the early 1970S, art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh approached Sigmar Polke about curating the German artist’s first retrospective. He was firmly rebuffed. To the thirty-something Polke, a retrospective was tantamount to a “grave-stone,” not so much marking accomplishment as signaling the end of an artist’s prime. But Polke eventually agreed to present a Werkauswahl (selection of works) on the condition that he be involved in choosing the objects and be in charge of the hanging.Buchloh therefore did not think twice when the artist requested a carpenter to assist him with the final installation the night before the show’s April 9, 1976, opening at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. The next morning, an unsuspecting Buchloh entered the main exhibition space and found himself “stunned.”
During his night of work, Polke had evidently not spent much time worrying about the finer points of the installation. Many of his paintings were left wrapped (the way they had been shipped) and stacked against the walls, while piles of unframed Polaroids and larger prints were haphazardly scattered across the floor. Walking into this scene, Buchloh instantly knew his lenders would not behappy. What’s more, Polke, with the carpenter’s help, had built a crude wooden gate, close to twenty-five feet tall, that blocked access to about half of the main space. Most of his overnight mess was corralled behind this structure, so that visitors had to peer through the slats to catch a glimpse of the works. The lissome subjects of Polke’s painting Freundinnen (Girlfriends), 1965/1966, eagerly peeked out from the top of a stack of canvases. Randomly affixed to the gate were a couple of photos, a few covers of the tabloid Bild, and, smack in the middle, half of the diptych painting Lucky Luke and His Friends, 1971–75, featuring the titular gunslinging cartoon character. To top it off, Polke and his carpenter partner-in-crime had hammered together a series of letters to crown the gate with the greeting “Kunst Macht Frei” (Art Makes You Free). Unmistakably, this was a play on Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free), the grotesquely ironic maxim—redolent, as Primo Levi observed, of “the heavy, arrogant, funereal wit to which only Germans are privy”—inscribed on the gates of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz.” [Christine Mehring on Sigmar Polke]
Buchloh: But if it had really been this kind of content that mattered to you, how do you explain the fact that at the same time you were introducing nonfigurative pictures in your work? Color Charts, for example, or other abstract pictures which arose in parallel with the figurative ones. This simultaneity confused most of your critics. They saw you as a painter who knew all the tricks and the techniques, who was a master of all the iconographic conventions that he was simultaneously depreciating. It’s that which makes your work particularly attractive to some observers just now. Your work looks as though it were presenting the entire universe of twentieth-century painting in a giant, cynical retrospective.
Richter: That is certainly a misunderstanding. I see there neither tricks, nor cynicism, nor craftiness. On the contrary, it strikes me as almost amateurish to see how directly I went at everything, to see how easy it is to discern all that I was thinking and trying to do there. So I also don’t know exactly what you mean now by the contradiction between figurative and abstract painting.
B: Let me take as an example Table, one of your first pictures. Table contains both elements: a completely abstract, gestural, self-reflexive quality, on the one hand, and, on the other, the representational function. And that is really one of the great dilemmas in the twentieth century, this seeming conflict, or antagonism, between painting’s representational function and its self-reflexion. These two positions are brought very close together indeed in your work. But aren’t they being brought together in order to show the inadequacy and bankruptcy of both?
R: Bankruptcy, no; inadequacy, always.
B: Inadequate by what standard? The expressive function?
R: By the standard of what we demand from painting.
B: Can this demand be formulated?
R: Painting should be accomplishing more.
[Gerhard Richter and Benjamin Buchloh in conversation]