Widely regarded as one of the most important and influential European artists of the last thirty years, the work of German artist Sigmar Polke will be the subject of a major exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum. The first North American exhibition of Polke’s ouevre, Sigmar Polke will present a selection of the artist’s diverse and eclectic body of work, which until now has been seldom seen in the United States. The Brooklyn Museum was specifically chosen by the artist as the exhibition’s New York venue because of its wide open Beaux Arts spaces and its eclectic collections. The artist will install the exhibition himself, deciding which works will be included, thereby making this, the exhibition’s last venue, different from the ones in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago on its national tour. The exhibition will open at The Brooklyn Museum October 11 and will remain on view through January 6, 1992.
The exhibition consists of approximately 50 paintings and a selection of works on paper, spanning the years 1963 to the present. The works trace the diverse output of an artist who, over the past 25 years, has shunned any single style or theme, as well as public attention, gaining him such labels as enigmatic, chameleonlike, and eccentric. From Pop-related “Capitalist Realist” works to dreamlike and absurd combination paintings and alchemical experiments with highly unusual painting materials, Polke’s creations demonstrate the artist’s uncanny ability to deal with a wide range of issues critically relevant to international art and culture of the last quarter century.
Born in Oels, Germany, in 1941, Polke emigrated from East to West Germany in 1953 and studied painting at the Academy of Art in Dusseldorf from 1961 to 1967. In 1963, while still at the Academy, he was one of the founders of “Capitalist Realism,” a style of art exploring the commercialism of American Pop Art. His works of this period, like Chocolate Painting (1964) and Doughnuts (1965) are purposefully flat and unseductive compared with their slick American counterparts and reflect the product-oriented postwar society.
In the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, Polke’s subject was art itself, offering parodies of artistic conventions and pretensions and targeting a wide variety of traditions of accepted Modernism. It was at this time that Polke’s experimentation with form and medium took on broad proportions, with imitation fur, upholstery, and wool blankets serving as canvases. Works from this period include Lilac Form (1967), featuring acrylic on a flower-print fabric, and Solutions (1967), made of lacquer on burlap.
In the early 1980s, Polke continued to pursue unconventional painting materials and methods, but his work became dominated by more politically significant themes such as the division of his homeland. From this period comes Camp (1982), one of Polke’s largest paintings, which depicts fences of barbed wire looming against a dark yellow sky painted over soft purple fabric with a thick black mist rising from below.
Most recently, the artist has turned away from the traditional methods of painting to produce works on canvas by a variety of “alchemical” means. In these, he incorporates and combines unprecedented media and techniques, producing works that change and react to time, temperature, humidity, and light. For example, Watchtower II (1984-5), a work consisting of silver, silver oxide, and synthetic resin on canvas, maintained its characteristic purple sheen when displayed in Pittsburgh but became green when exhibited in Los Angeles.
Polke has been the subject of major retrospectives throughout Europe and was the featured German artist and winner of the Golden Lion prize at the 1986 Venice Biennale. He is also one of the most admired figures of the younger generation of German artists and is credited with having an early impact on such American painters as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Ros[s] Bleckner.
A 150-page catalogue, published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, will accompany the exhibition. The first English-language publication dedicated to Polke’s work, Sigmar Polke contains 98 full-color illustrations plus essays by exhibition curator John Caldwell and noted art critics and historians from both Europe and the United States (hardcover, $50; softbound, $32.95).
Sigmar Polke was organized by John Caldwell, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After opening in San Francisco, it traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was organized at The Brooklyn Museum by Charlotta Kotik, Curator of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture.
The exhibition is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; the Contemporary Art Council of The Brooklyn Museum; and the FUNd at The Brooklyn Museum.