I FIRST MET SIGMAR POLKE in the 1970s--a decade that has been dealt with too summarily in most of his retrospectives to date, since the prevailing opinion has been that the artist spent these years devoting himself to almost anything but painting: photography, film, travel, experiments in collective living, and other consciousness-expanding activities. But shortly before his death at age sixty-nine in June of this year, an extraordinary exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle--organized by Petra Lange-Berndt, Dietmar Rubel, and Dorothee Bohm--offered a finely articulated, revisionist look at his '70s production. Titled "Wir kleinburger!" (We Petty Bourgeois!), the show brought together a vast trove of documentation, artifacts, and artworks, both by Polke and by a number of artists to whom he was close. In addition to a profusion of photographs (which he also often sent in packets to friends), there was a selection of clips from the numerous and seldom-exhibited 16-mm films with which he recorded his activities and the company he kept. Via this expansive approach, the curators illuminated aspects of Polke's practice that bad never before been closely scrutinized, and offered the opportunity to draw fresh conclusions about his entire body of work. Far from an interregnum, they showed, the '70s marked a fascinating phase of Polke's career during which he amalgamated politics, art, and life, both openly exposing himself to and intelligently withdrawing from the social and political volatility of Germany.
At this time, the artist was already very successful and was being courted by numerous curators. With his unpredictability, he kept them all off balance: They would invite him to do a show or a publication, but they had no way of knowing what they would get. Polke had a large social circle, and he might (or might not) solicit the participation of members of his gang in any project he undertook. The cover of the 1975 catalogue raisonne of his prints, for example, features drawings--one of Al Capone, the other of the pope--by a Zurich Hells Angel who was an acquaintance of his. With his charisma and charm, his fur coat and snakeskin trousers, Polke was king of the scene--a word that was then only just coming into use. He drew sustenance from the collective and gave back generously. Nomadically, excessively, he traveled between Hamburg, where he held a professorship at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste (teaching, or at least hanging out with, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, and Georg Herold, among others), and his commune in Willich, near Dusseldorf, where he entertained an ever-changing assemblage of guests ranging from Michael Buthe to Katharina Sieverding. He sojourned frequently in Zurich, too, where he could escape Germany's politically fraught atmosphere and enjoy the society of the city's miscellaneous bohemians. In 1974, he went farther a field, setting out on a road trip with two or three of his Zurich friends that took him through Afghanistan and Pakistan--in an American convertible. He wound up in Quetta, Pakistan, where he took his famous photos of hashish smokers and dog-and-bear fights.
Although the Hamburg show was replete with vivid documentation of all these activities, its fulcrum was the work from which it took its title: the exceptional Wir Kleinburger!, 1974-76, a ten-part cycle of gouaches on enormous sheets of paper. The exhibition was organized into three parts (exploring Polke's social milieu, his relation to pop culture, and his politics, respectively), which were on view sequentially from spring 2009 to January of this year, but Wir Kleinburger! remained on view for the duration, demonstrating that Polke the painter kept his head throughout the entire turbulent epoch. Here, working with intense inventiveness across multiple scales (some passages are small and intricate, others large and expansive, so that the microcosmic and the macrocosmic coexist in a single painting), he laid the groundwork for his work of the 1980s. …