The Sigmar Polke exhibition features nearly 70 paintings and some fifty works on paper in a layout that is rigorously chronological but flexible enough to allow this body of work to be deployed with the same freedom that informed its making. The exhibition starts with the emblematic painting Hands, which the
artist placed at the entrance to the German Pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennale. Depicting a group of people covering their faces with their hands, this black-and-white painting is based on a photograph whose grain Polke enlarges in his characteristic way. The message that the artist addresses to the viewer about the question of the gaze could hardly be more ambiguous – an ambiguity that not incidentally runs through all of Polke’s oeuvre, as a deliberate reflection of the ambiguity of reality. Colours and alchemy The exhibition continues with a few of Polke’s major paintings from the 1980s that figured in the principle shows devoted to the artist: Black Man (1982) , Scissors (1982) , and Hallucinogen (1983) . These illustrate his experimentation with colour, particularly with discontinued or toxic colours, and his never-ceasing interest in
paranormal phenomena and occult sciences. They are accompanied by a group of 36 ink drawings and gouaches from his sketchbooks, which offer the occasion to get a close look at the alchemy of forms and colours that fascinated Sigmar Polke so and that he never stopped exploring throughout his life, in ways both playful and serious. Sometimes he limited himself to pure experimentation for its own sake, as in the “Colour Experiments” series (10 small works from the studio, most of which have never been exhibited before, but his explorations were usually put to the service of much more ambitious works, like Curlicue Face (1986) or Leonardo (1984) .
Opposite these is a very beautiful painting made with lapis-lazuli, a semi-precious stone whose particular glow illuminates the blues of Fra Angelico and Philippe de Champaigne, and which have disappeared from the palette of painters since the 19th century, mainly due to cost. With this pigment, he creates a kind of moving landscape, misty and magical, which once again blurs the boundaries between figuration and abstraction. This lyrical spirit, which bespeaks the affinity of certain aspects of Polke’s universe with Romanticism, cannot be apprehended literally. There is in it something of a search for the sublime and an exaltation of the beauty of things, but at the same time it points to the artificial character of art. In the same vein are two majestic, monumental triptychs (675 x 840 cm! ) – one from 1989 (Caixa collection, Barcelona) , the other from 1994 (Museum Burda, Baden-Baden) . Here, the artist uses for the first time a transparent canvas that shows the stretcher through the luxuriance of colours and materials, revealing, in sum, the behind the scenes.
The special attention that Sigmar Polke pays to the support is everywhere evident in the exhibition. This is particularly the case in paintings such as Mercedes and Tea Towels where the artist replaces the prepared canvas with a material of a radically different nature (ticking, tablecloth, upholstery fabric, curtains, kitchen towels, etc.) , and with no pictorial intervention or very little. The support becomes then the work in its own right, an iconoclastic and ironic ready-made painting of sorts. Most often, however, the artist intervenes and adds new designs, delighting in the telescoping of the images he creates: those already on the support, those that he paints, and the random spots, smears, and drippings that he provokes.
The exhibition ends with one last important group of paintings: a “Magic Lantern” from 1992, composed of six two-sided paintings, based on old engravings illustrating children’s stories. Like Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, Polke turns on childhood to evoke once again his fascination for images, for what they reveal about the world and about us, what they say and what they hide, their enchantments and their lies.
And this he does without ever losing the characteristic smile of one who knows that all is but a dream, a cruel, funny and absurd dream.