How do you approach an artist as elusive, maddening and unfathomable as Sigmar Polke? Since he’s too wriggly to fit into a box called Pop Art or Surrealism, one answer is to simply see him as an artist of the Sixties. Though he created complex and ambitious work in every decade of his career, he never quite commanded the kind of reverence accorded to other German artists of that decade such as Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer. That may be because he belongs so completely to a single moment in time. When I look at his paintings and films (of whatever date) I think of Hippies and psychedelic drugs, of liberation, rebellion, the Beatles, the Stones, Monthy Python and Mad Magazine.
In this country Polke’s art has only been seen in exhibitions focusing on periods in his career or themes in his work. But on Thursday a full-scale retrospective opens at Tate Modern, the first since his death in 2010 and the first in which I’ve been able to see that if Polke’s art feels messy and open-ended, it is because he aimed to do nothing less than to embrace the whole of human experience, from sex and drugs, to art, science, mysticism, history and current events.
Born in Eastern Germany in 1941, he came with his family to the West at the age of 12. At the Düsseldorf Academy in the early Sixties he and his fellow student Richter started a tongue-in-cheek art movement they dubbed Capitalist Realism.
In a country still suffering from severe shortages of food and clothing, the young Polke felt even slight tremors of the culture of consumerism soon to come. A deadpan painting of 1963 shows a row of three men’s socks, each displayed as they would be in a shop window or in an advertisement. All are brown and all serve the same function, and yet no two are identical. Far from celebrating what Americans might call consumer “choice”, Polke does nothing to make the goods look appealing. To him, a sock is a sock, so all are rendered in cheap house paint against a neutral background. And almost as an afterthought he adds a sly dig at another fashionable American import, Abstract Expressionism. The ruck where each sock was folded makes them resemble big dumb brush strokes.
A German friend tells me that more than any other artist of the period Polke’s work conveys to him a sense of what it was like to live in Germany when it was emerging from post-war austerity. Though many of the topical jokes and references in his early drawings are lost to those of us who weren’t there and don’t speak German, what is emphatically not lost in translation is Polke’s bitter contrariness when it came to his country’s cherished traditions and institutions.
A picture based on a found black-and-white snapshot of a family group is painted in enlarged dots that imitate grainy newsprint. But the dots are drippy and the paint smudged as if the photo had been left out in the rain. It therefore takes a minute to realize that you are looking at a scene of domestic horror. The grinning father lays claim to his three children, virtually elbowing the mother into the background. A child squirms on each knee and Dad keeps them in place with one fat hand at the boy’s groin and the other at the girl’s chest. It’s a dark picture that turns an institution beloved of church and state into something sinister.
The use of Raster dots is most effective when Polke blows up photos found in newspapers or film posters to create 5ft-high pictures that by their size transform banal and marginal subjects into monumental statements that demand our attention. In pictures such as Girlfriends and Japanese Dancers it’s not Warhol I think of but the late works of Walter Sickert. The grainy dots convey a sense of flickering movement so that the images feel ephemeral, like people glimpsed for a second on a TV screen and then gone forever.
What you might call the other side of this coin is Polke’s relentless mockery of high art. His send-up of Kasimir Malevich takes the form of a mock Suprematist abstraction with the title Higher Beings Command: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!. In all his parodies he took care not to pander to bourgeois taste. Using sour, dirty colours, he leaves in place every accidental drip and smudge. In a gesture that must surely say something about his contempt for the dealers and collectors who bought his work, he sometimes worked with human waste or radioactive materials.
At just this point in the show, when Polke has become charmless and tiresome, there is a shift in his working method that may have been connected both to a period in which he travelled extensively in India and Pakistan and also to a developing enthusiasm for taking acid.
By the early Seventies, he has begun to draw on what must have been a vast archive of photos and 19th-century illustrations, pornography, wallpapers, fabrics, advertising and comic books to make multi-layered palimpsests in which images and patterns intertwine and overlap. These are the works I love. Often it is hard to figure out precisely how these paintings are made. In one of the most delightful, the Tenniel illustration in which Alice interviews the hookah-smoking Caterpillar is painted on polka-dot fabric with white spray paint. I think he must also have used a photomechanical printing technique to imprint a photo of an American basketball player on the patterned fabric next to Alice but it’s hard to tell because the layering of images means that nothing in the picture exists in isolation, everything joins together: a few mushrooms loosely painted in the lower left tell you about the caterpillar’s drug habit, which may account for the hallucination of the graceful athlete at the right.
Like Robert Rauschenberg, Polke refused to edit anything out of his paintings or to put limits on the materials or techniques he used.
There are only a few moments in the show when you feel he is reacting simply and directly to things he saw and felt. More often, you sense that the ostensible subject of an artwork is only part of what interested Polke about it. When the viewer doesn’t have a handle on the moral or cultural context that made the image important to him, we switch off. In the end, it’s best not to overthink his work and just enjoy the show as a giant, constantly shifting kaleidoscope of photos, films and paintings, very much in the spirit of the Sixties.