IN a dark suit, glasses, and thinning blond hair, this man looks like a well-established businessman. As I talk to him at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, I ask myself whether this can be the enigmatic, eccentric, and chameleon-like Sigmar Polke - one of the most seminal and controversial of contemporary German artists.
Polke is enormously popular with the younger artists of his country and has even influenced some of the rising generation in the United States. While he paints in series, he avoids, apparently with great determination, a "signature style" that is uniquely and recognizably his. Someone unfamiliar with his total oeuvre could easily be persuaded that his recent US exhibit was the work of several artists - so different are his various phases.
Sigmar Polke was born in Oels in what was then Germany. He showed the cool strength of his character when, at 12 years old, he decided he would have a better chance in West Germany and crossed the border on a Berlin subway. He later studied the craft of glass painting; this may be the origin of his later experiments with unconventional materials for his canvases.
When he was 20, he enrolled in the Art Academy in Dusseldorf. Two years later, he and two friends founded a style they called "capitalist realism playing on the name of the artistic movement then dominant in Soviet-bloc countries, socialist realism. This was a variant on American Pop Art. The first examples were flatly painted everyday objects, some of which, like a chocolate bar with nuts, were in short supply. Another painting in this style, "Liebespaar II" (Lovers II), is a typically satiric look at g raphics of commercial advertising; it is a throwaway image. It is hard to say just what the prominent colored dots and open circles superimposed on the woman signify, but they may suggest that there are hidden layers of meaning even in the most banal presentations.
One of the most ardent collectors of Polke's work wrote, "[He] never dips his brush into the same pot twice." He dipped his ironic brush into the pots of virtually all the various "isms," methods and modes of art in the years following. One of his inventions was superimposing drawings of figures over a ground of printed fabric. In "Hochsitz mid Ganse" (Watchtower with Geese), he covers a huge nine-and-a-half foot square "canvas" with three fabrics: one is quilted magenta, another is neutral-colored strip ed, and a third is black, with white motifs of sunglasses, beach chairs, and umbrellas. All three fabrics are crudely sewn together.
Polke painted two series dealing with concentration camp themes. In the first, called "Camp," he uses barbed wire as the dominant image. The watchtower motif dominated the series that followed.
The large size of the painting forces the viewer to look up at the watchtower like a concentration camp inmate. We see the floating faces of a man and a woman among the very ordinary silhouettes of beach paraphernalia. From a distance the innocuous beach motifs suggest airplanes and missiles. An ominous-looking circular blur of light unites the beach motifs with the watchtower. What are we to read from this? Is Polke saying that the lesson of the Holocaust is that we can take little comfort in a safe, ba nal existence when the shadow of a looming evil has never been totally dispelled? And what about the geese, superimposed over the stilts of the watchtower and the motifs? Somehow this gaggle of domestic birds has a reassuring air, as if the basic fabric of domestic existence will always reassert itself even under the apparent doom of the watchtower.
The paint medium of this canvas is described as synthetic resin and acrylic. This is fairly conventional stuff for Polke to have used in the late 1980s. Other paintings utilize a strange paint which changes color with the changes in temperature and humidity. Polke and I were standing in front of a large painting titled "Negative Value: Alkor" when I asked him about the paint. He obligingly spread his hand over a greenish area until it turned purple, and said, "The man who made this paint told me that it was interesting, but it was useless as no one wanted it." He smiled as if he felt he had now found a good use for it. Once I asked for a slide of one of these chameleon-like paintings; Polke offered four - each with a different color tone.
Polke says the title "Negative Value: Alkor" derives its name from the star "Alkor" in the constellation Ursus Major. "Alkor" is an Arabic word - an injunction to improve one's eyes. Thus, the title seems to exhort viewers to observe with a careful eye. At first glance, this 8 1/2 by 6 foot canvas is an abstract with handsome effects that are sometimes shadowy, sometimes glowing. Then as one looks closely, vague figurative heads become apparent. But the closer one looks at them, the more one is apt to f eel he is chasing phantoms. The unpredictable, the ambiguous seems to be what the artist is striving for.
There are Polke canvases in major American museums like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in many American private collections. Still, an artist of Polke's diversity needs to be seen not one canvas at a time, but in exhibitions comprehensive enough to give a sense of the breadth and variety of his oeuvre.