Polke started out in the 1960s as a Pop artist, although he and Richter chose the ironic term “Capitalist Realism” to describe their work, which, like Warhol’s, features everyday products such as biscuits, Tupperware, socks and sausages. He also did magnified “Ben-Day” dot paintings in the manner of Roy Lichtenstein, and painted on the decorative fabrics used in bourgeois interiors. As well as thumbing his nose at consumer culture, Polke satirized the popularity of abstraction in German art in paintings such as “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!” (1969).
In the 1970s Polke turned increasingly to film and photography. He also immersed himself in the alternative scene, experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, living in a commune, and traveling on the “hippie trail.” Typical of his work in this period is the short film “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan” (circa 1974-76), featuring multi-colored buses, men smoking opium and drinking tea, and a street artist with a monkey that performs back-flips before apparently playing dead. The backing track includes music from the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report. Everybody in the film appears to be stoned.
In the 1980s Polke concentrated on painting again, although, typically, he rarely used conventional oil on canvas. Just as in his films he played around with double exposure, or in photography he made images by exposing the paper to uranium (which he kept in a lead box in his studio), in his paintings he experimented with increasingly bizarre materials: powdered meteorite, soot, bubble wrap, various toxic pigments, and even, in “Purple” (1986), a dye extracted from boiled snails.
The final twenty years of Polke’s life, covered in the last four or five rooms at the Tate, were equally diverse. One of the most intriguing works in the show, “The Illusionist” (2007), deals with one of his favorite themes: how we as an audience see and respond to images. In it, Polke overlaps two scenes: an engraving showing two stage magicians with a blindfolded woman between them, and another of three men holding drawn swords in a bizarre ritual. He seems to be concerned here with substantial and indeterminate space, and the interplay between two different worlds, that of illusion and that of reality.
I emerged from this exhibition deeply impressed by the sheer range of Polke’s output, but frankly puzzled about his intentions as an artist. Eccentric and irreverent, Polke gave the impression of taking neither his life nor his art very seriously. Obviously, there was a more sober aspect to his work, but he never seems exactly burdened by Germany’s turbulent past, and he lacks the earnestness or either Richter or Kiefer. He was more like the German folklore character Till Eulenspiegel, the practical joker who goes round exposing hypocrisy, greed and folly at every turn. In interviews, he was notoriously evasive and contradictory: one critic wrote that talking with him was to know how Margaret Dumont must have felt trying to get a straight answer out of the Marx Brothers. Polke remains a frustratingly difficult artist to pin down.
(This review first appeared on CultureVulture.net)
Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern, until 8th February 2015