Polke - Bernstein - Amber
The New York Times
Michael Kimmelman
1 December 2006

Painting is man's oldest conjuring trick. And Sigmar Polke is one of its reigning magicians, a mercurial master, gleefully perverse, flirting with chaos and occasionally falling victim to it, but usually pulling another rabbit out of his hat. There isn't a more fascinating artist around. 

He traffics in all manner of newfangled and oddball devices, from unlikely fabrics as painting surfaces to strange chemical brews in lieu of the usual pigments. Doing so, he somehow reaffirms the durability of painting, and not incidentally, invents strangely beautiful pictures, the emphasis equally on strange and on beautiful. 

These two fine shows provide snapshots of his remarkable career. 

He got his start in the early 1960s in the flush of Düsseldorf's postwar resuscitation, fashioning an antiart, anarchist response to American Pop along with Konrad Fischer and Gerhard Richter, like Mr. Polke a refugee from East Germany. It came to be called, for want of a better catchphrase, Capitalist Realism. 

The show at McCaffrey isolates early drawings by Warhol and Mr. Polke, a contrast emphasizing the slick, deadpan, essentially complicit style of the former, and the more idiosyncratic, jesterlike approach of the latter. Warhol embraced the language and forms of advertising while Mr. Polke cackled at the much-advertised West German miracle, which promised national redemption in a Coke bottle. As opposed to the finesse of Madison Avenue, he proffered a crude, bumptious draftsmanship akin to doodling that encapsulated the condition of a talented young artist in a disgraced, newly capitalist country where nobody was looking for or expecting much good art to be made. 

A few in-jokes about Mr. Richter emphasize the petri-dish claustrophobia of the scene. That these drawings retain their freshness stems partly from the countless young artists who aspire to Mr. Polke's laconic virtuosity. 

At Werner new paintings and those from the 1980s, all of them two-sided and painted with resin, surround a small selection of German Baroque amber (Bernstein is German for amber) jewelry and exquisite tchotchkes. The show simulates a Wunderkammer, a darkened wonder cabinet of the 17th or 18th century. 

It's an ingenious idea, not just because of the visual echoes between these objects and the pictures, whose predominant maple syrupy color is amber, but also because Mr. Polke's alchemy aims at wonderment. The paintings, made translucent by the resin, nearly defy decipherment. Doodles and abstract splashes of white paint overlay murky washes of glowing resin on both sides of their membranous support, then cast dim shadows on the wall behind, so that the pictures seem suspended in midair, floating. 

The color goes from peanut cluster to blackened leather. The shapes skirt nonsense but generally achieve eloquence. They form unnameable cosmologies and galaxies when, depending on the density of the resin, they don't sink into black holes. 

Mr. Polke's art brings to mind Baudelaire's ideal of travel, which was not about reaching a certain destination but about the desire to get away. ''Anywhere! Anywhere!'' Baudelaire wrote. ''So long as it is out of this world."