The Sigmar Polke retrospective that just opened at the Museum of Modern Art is enormous, filling ten galleries plus the second-floor atrium, and covering the German artist’s entire career, from 1963 (twenty-two years after his birth) to 2010 (the year of his death). So any response to it, especially after a single visit, can only be partial. But the work and the show are both so intense that I nonetheless feel compelled to respond.
Polke was an obdurate and willfully challenging artist who expressed his aggressive vision in many media: painting, sculpture, photographs, film, collage, stained glass, and various combinations of the above, plus new forms that he invented on the spot. He combined kitsch with tragedy, critiques of communist propaganda with critiques of capitalist consumerism. He was very German and very dubious about Germany’s past. His films are largely without dialogue, while his drawings and paintings often rely on words, though in ways that confuse or complicate meaning rather than clarify it. He had an excellent sense of humor (as shown in the little piece titled Telepathic Session: William Blake–Sigmar Polke, where catenary strings link thought-bubbles labeled “ja” and “nein” in the separate regions assigned to these two visually unlike but visionarily connected artists). Yet his wit often took a mordant turn—as, for instance, in the sculpture Potato House, a life-sized see-through allotment shed made of wooden poles, each of which has a rotten potato stuck to the end of it.
As an artist, he was not particularly interested in beauty; whenever it appears in his work, it seems almost a by-product of the ideas and inventions swirling around in the stew of his mind. And yet it does appear, in works that are as affecting as they are strange. For me, the standouts in this regard are the three panels titled Negative Value (which hang along one wall of Gallery Seven, a room that covers the very productive years 1981–1983) and the four untitled “soot paintings” on glass that he made in 1990. The Negative Value paintings are like something Rothko might have done if he had a less orderly and more fiendishly playful mind. Made almost entirely with the kind of purple ink used in butcher’s meat stamps and government mimeograph machines, they have been burnished, enameled, and treated with chemicals in a way that produces a largely black surface with occasional purple highlights, small shards of paleness, and swirls of texture that shimmer and shift as you move from side to side. These three large panels (each about eight-and-a-half feet high and six-and-a-half feet wide) are simultaneously entrancing and frightening; one could stand in front of them for hours and still never penetrate them.
The soot panels are a different matter entirely. Four elongated rectangles of glass, each over a yard wide and nearly twelve feet tall, project toward us on metal rods, so that they hang in the air in front of us and stretch far above our heads. On their surfaces are varying patterns in lines and curls and smudges, of different degrees of thickness and opacity. It is a bit as if Cy Twombly had merged with Jackson Pollock and decide to renounce orderly pencil squiggles for something much harsher and messier, though that comparison doesn’t begin to do justice to the novelty of what Polke has produced here. These panels are light (both in the sense of humorous—we are amused by those squiggles—and also in the sense of luminous, because we can see through the glass) and at the same time very dark, because we feel something fiery and dangerous in that residue of a smoky oil-lamp even if we do not know how the pictures were made. We can also detect the human hand here, in occasional finger strokes and even written graffiti that have been overlaid on the sooty originals. Some of these actually are graffiti (Polke insisted that the fragile soot side should face outward, inviting easy destruction), but some might be the tinkerings of the artist’s own hand. Because he is dead—and because, even in life, he rarely gave explanations or made firm pronouncements about his work—we will never know.
That is true not only of the soot paintings, but of every other item in the show. They are all open questions. The curators of the MOMA show have intelligently honored Polke’s characteristic obduracy by refusing to put wall descriptions next to each work of art. As you travel through the rooms, you have to look first at the thing itself, and then, if you wish, consult your exhibition guide to find out a little about it (but only a very little: the name, the date, the materials, the owner—and none of these will answer your real queries). One can almost hear Polke’s mordant laughter in the background.