Sigmar Polke – Alchemy, Anarchy, And The Drug-Fuelled Journey

Sigmar Polke

Tate Modern presents Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010; this is the first exhibition to fully encompass the full range of materials with which the artist worked over a 47 year period of practice; and the exhibition is the first full retrospective of the late Polke’s career, bringing together paintings, films, sculptures, notebooks, slide projections and photocopies that span five decades – which includes works that have never before been exhibited before.

Alongside Gerhard Richter – soon to be opening at the Marian Goodman Gallery, London – and Blinky Palermo, Polke was a key figure in the generation of German artists who first emerged in the 1960s. Political and social commentary was a constant thread throughout Polke’s oeuvre referencing Germany’s Nazi era in his early career with a sense of badinage, and sly wit not matched by fellow artist Anselm Kiefer – through ‘abstract’ swastika’s and the haunting series of Watch Towers from the mid-80s which evoke the structures on the perimeters of concentration camps, with the juxtaposition of a drab Warhol-esque finish.

The show reflects the artist’s irreverent attitude to authority throughout his career; and highlights Polke’s experimental processes, and the artist’s eccentricities and unconventionalities. This is a multifarious exhibition spanning and barely contained in 14 rooms of Tate Modern where the viewer is bombarded by Polke’s hallucinogenic canvases, video works, and photographs. ‘Alibis’ is a compendium of the artist’s often pseudo alchemical works, and drug-fuelled journeys into pigments and poisonous substances.

The artist explored ideas of contamination and transformation, at one point extracting dye from boiled snails, and using materials as varied as gold leaf, meteorite powder, bubble wrap, potatoes, and soot. The artist had a pseudo alchemical bent – that was more of a Beuysian parody than any serious stance as shaman; in fact Polke’s position was to even question the artist’s authority itself.

Polke spent a time focussing on the identity of the contemporary artist; and his works ridicule that Beuysian status of visionary and shaman. The artist questions the idea of heroism and cultural self-importance. In ‘Starry Heaven’s Cloth’ the artist imagines that he’s found a constellation that spells out his name; questioning the value of the ‘great artist’ in culture.

But the artist as antenna; is where Polke attempts to communicate with William Blake in the work ‘telepathic Session II’ intentionally exposing the fallibility of the artist; as Polke only receives one of the three ‘messages’ sent from Blake. The artist may be an unfathomable, messy prospect for most viewers – but he’s never without a sense of humour or self-effacing irony.

Polke spent a career in search of the ‘happy accident’ where experiment might conjure magic; beginning with the artist’s early works under the banner ‘Capitalist Realism’, the art movement he launched in early 1960s which spliced East German Socialist Realism with American Pop Art, we travel through a host of styles to the point where Polke stated that ‘poison just crept into my pictures’. In the artist’s triptych titled ‘Negative Value’ Polke used pigments that when burnished would change hue depending on the position of the viewer, the works were titled after stars that are difficult to tell apart and highlight the artist’s interest in the esoteric – causing the artist to be incorrectly described as an alchemist. Polke’s painting ‘Lump Of Gold’ is actually created with pigments that are highly poisonous. The work heads toward a slightly mystical abstraction, that Joseph Beuys might have approved of.

The artist had a playfulness and a desire to experiment that were at the very heart of Polke’s work; a desire to question how things might be done differently, against the authority of pre-existing beliefs; resulting in murky and deliberately elusive works. Polke’s art is intentionally incoherent, suffused with alchemy, anarchy, and a journey both geographical and drug induced.

Polke pokes fun at the notion of power through cultural value; but simultaneously imagines himself as a powdered ‘art drug’ – the taking of which would amount to an art intervention for human consciousness. There is still value in the artist; even if it is in questioning the artist – and even if through a slightly dated trippy haze.

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 – Tate Modern – until 8 Febuary 2015

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 Photos Courtesy of Tate Modern all rights reserved


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