“Young German artists were stirred by the emerging Pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Polke took to painting proletarian consumer goods—chocolate bars, soap, plastic buckets—and ordinary news and magazine photographs, in a rugged variant of Lichtenstein’s Benday dots. The first was a scrappy image of Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1963, Polke, Richter, and two artist friends, unable to interest galleries in their work, mounted a group show, in a former butcher shop, of what they termed “Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism.” The last two words resonate with an exquisite ambivalence, skewering both parties to the Cold War: the commercial West and the dogmatic East. Polke and Richter, like Warhol, conveyed underclass perspectives on popular spectacles of commerce and glamour—“outdoing each other in terms of the lowest forms of banality,” according to the German art historian and critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who knew both men at the time, and is interviewed in the show’s catalogue. But they did so with lacerating skepticism, which, in Polke’s case, abided no distinction between the vulgarities of mass culture and the pretenses of fine art. What Polke didn’t raise up he brought down, as in a work of 1968 that might qualify as the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of postmodernist sensibility: “Moderne Kunst,” a painting of generic abstract shapes, lines, squiggles, and splashes, with a white border like that surrounding a reproduction in a book. It is both savagely sarcastic and seductively lovely. Time and again, Polke projects the unlikely comic figure of a would-be destroyer of art who keeps being ambushed by onsets of beauty and charm. He is angry, but his anger makes him cheerful. His lunges become dances.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Sigmar Polke]
“For many years Polke’s 1970s work was rarely shown or written about, which contributed to the perception that he stopped painting in the 1970s, in favor of making photographs and films and restlessly traveling. Even at the time, observers were trying to ignore the 1970s work in favor of that of the 1960s, done when he was more visible on the German art scene, before he disappeared, so they thought, into a haze of psychedelic experiments, communal living and messy collaborations. The most striking sign of this attitude came with the 1976 survey: in making his selection for the exhibition Buchloh included no work after 1971, in effect excluding half of the artist’s career. The generous representation of 1970s work at MoMA testifies to a continuing reassessment of this period of the artist’s life. Although most of it comes in the form of photographs and films, there are a number of paintings, including Alice in Wonderland and Mao, both from 1972, and, from later in the decade, Supermarkets (1976) and Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978. Centered on an image copied from a 1955 edition of MAD magazine, Supermarkets is one of 10 large paintings on paper that Polke made at the urging of his Swiss dealer Toni Gerber, who planned to sell them to a consortium of collectors. At MoMA, it hangs in a gallery intentionally overloaded with work in order to, as a wall text explains, “evoke the stimulation of all the senses that occurs during a hallucination.” Some of this stimulation comes in the form of three 16mm films simultaneously projected on different walls, their musical soundtracks bleeding into each other (resulting, at one point, in a mash-up of Herbie Hancock and Captain Beefheart). One film, Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan (ca. 1974-76), presents footage of some cruel bear-baiting and blurry pans of watching crowds. Showing how Polke’s visual impulses traversed the boundaries of different mediums, the crowd motif turns up in two nearby paintings on political themes, Mao and, in spray paint on newsprint, Against the Two Superpowers-For a Red Switzerland (1976).” [Raphael Rubenstein on Sigmar Polke]
Polke is in a league with Tintoretto when it comes to being in total control of vast amounts of painterly space. See the gigantic painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, from 1991. It’s painted on translucent synthetic fabric and hangs about a foot off the wall, so it glows with light. The picture merges with its surroundings — as if some optical bridge was being formed between what’s visible and what’s not, the past and the present. Its surface displays a huge painted image of a woman and two young girls cutting up paper, apparently making snow over the landscape. Much of the painting is a massive blast of stark white that becomes a gigantic abstract painting unto itself. Go in close, and you’ll see that the entire painting is inflected with round little fissures where the artist interacted with the paint. Mrs. Autumn has the intensity of an illuminated manuscript and the power of a Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.
The other place you need to park yourself is in the cattle-chute corridor that contains Velocitas — Firmitudo, a graphite, silver oxide, and damar-resin giant on canvas. This sooty-looking abstract storm utilizes a teeny detail of a Dürer and is as great as its source, and it’s one of the best paintings in the show. As painter Jackie Saccoccio wrote to me, it “has equal amounts of flippant casualness, astute observation, utter devotion to material, and the alchemical stuff that happens in his photos.” Beneath this behemoth (it was originally installed high on the wall, as it is here) lie 14 little abstract paintings. These elemental jewels from the 1980s show Polke the master of accident, control, experimentation, viscosity, resin, varnish, fluorescent paint, and other liquids that metamorphose into incredible textures, unnameable shapes, new biological forms. These little works are the prototypes for tens of thousands of lesser abstract paintings now being cranked out (and sold for vast prices) all over the world. [Jerry Saltz on Sigmar Polke]