The past couple of years in the British art world have seen a strong taste for all things postwar German. The leading figures of the generation of painters that came to maturity after 1945 include Gerhard Richter (born 1932), Georg Baselitz (1938), Sigmar Polke (1941), and Anselm Kiefer (1945). The head boy of the group is Richter, whose regular gallery appearances in Britain include recent shows at the National Portrait Gallery, the Serpentine and Tate Modern. Earlier this year Baselitz's new paintings were shown at the Gagosian Gallery and his prints at the British Museum. A retrospective of Kiefer's work has just opened at the Royal Academy. The least familiar of the four is Polke, something Tate Modern hopes to rectify with its retrospective of his work, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 (October 9-February 8, 2015).
All four artists have dealt with their post-war heritage in different ways. Richter through increasing simplification and poetry; Baselitz by taking the upside-down world literally and painting pictures that are upside-down; Kiefer by painting a complicated personal cosmology full of historical references; and Polke by concentrating on the act of creation and the materials of his art. Of the four Polke is the hardest to get a handle on. Unlike the others he had no recognisable style: he worked with paint, photography, film, Xeroxes, drawing, sculpture and performance. There is no such thing as a distinctive "Polke".
Polke, who died in 2010, was also the most reticent of the four about dealing with the immediate past. His father was an architect who worked with the Nazis, and a friend said that Polke saw art as a means to fight "against the madness of facts". Where Richter, Baselitz and Kiefer have all consciously used their art to come to some sort of accommodation with or understanding of National Socialist Germany, Polke, despite the presence of the odd doodled swastika in his notebooks, was always more interested in the society of the present. This lack of closure perhaps helps explain why his work is marked by mess, chance and formlessness.
It may also lie behind his habitual distrust of authority, whether artistic, religious or political. When he was a child his family fled first Silesia, which became part of Poland after 1945, and then East Germany, escaping to West Berlin in 1953 (Richter and Baselitz also made their way from East to West). The precariousness of his circumstances kept him in the here and now.
When he arrived in West Germany Polke was confronted for the first time by consumerism and contemporary art; his early work reacted to both. While studying in Düsseldorf he founded the "Capitalist Realism" movement with Richter, a riposte to Soviet "Socialist Realism". The short-lived movement, part critique and part ironic celebration, had much in common with Pop Art in that it made numerous references to advertising and magazine imagery. Like Roy Lichtenstein Polke started to produce dot paintings (done with the rubber on the end of a pencil); he also tried out Pollock's drips, Rothko's saturated colour and Warhol's fascination with groceries. Many of his pictures of the time — of a man eating an endless string of sausages, of biscuits, chocolate, soap and shirts — reflect a sense of uneasy wonder that he found himself in a land of plenty.
Before long he moved on to using kitsch printed fabrics instead of canvas, superimposing cartoonish figures on to their patterns of spaceships or forest animals. He would also doctor his own photographs, using chemicals such as uranium to alter prints in unpredictable ways. The aesthetics of all this were largely secondary; Polke did not make art to express a viewpoint. "It is the procedures in and for themselves that interest me," he said. "The picture isn't really necessary!" While this might make for conceptually interesting work it doesn't necessarily make for pictures that are always rewarding. It is why he has long been a favourite of curators and other artists rather than the public.
Polke stated that he wanted "to show how dependent we are on existing forms. We are continually resorting to what already exists ... consciously or unconsciously." Whereas Richter and Kiefer have found a way to twist the pre-existing to their own ends, Polke never quite did. It means that almost all his art can seem a work in progress rather than an idea conceived, considered and expressed. Indeed, the most fully formed — and beautiful (not a word Polke elicits too often) — of his pieces are those where chance did most of the work. When, for example, he mixed materials such as pigment, lacquer and varnish together and poured them on to a canvas to congeal haphazardly. Or when he used the smoke from an oil lamp to trace sooty trails on sheets of glass. Or blew dust from a meteorite across a resin-coated surface to form a haphazard cloud.
Polke himself had an explanation for the heterogeneous nature of his work. He was, he said, interested both in the instability of vision and in the conflicting claims of representation and abstraction: his double-exposed films and pictures painted with unstable photographic chemicals examine these borderlands. Of course such vagaries can also be seen as a get-out clause to explain his flibbertigibbet experimentation and equally unsettled enthusiasms. "Solutions," he said, "are the product of a lack of freedom multiplied by a complacent satisfaction."
Because of his variety Polke exhibitions usually concentrate on one particular medium — his photographs, his films, his drawings. This show, however, has a bit of everything. Whether it will enhance his reputation is another matter. His art is fascinating for the way it thumbs its nose at bourgeois conformism but nothing ages as quickly as the avant-garde.