Moments of shining intellectual clarity in the philosophical works of Jean-Paul Sartre are few and far between. One such occurs in Being and Nothingness. A man enters a cafe, expecting to meet his friend. He is not there. The man is overwhelmed by the feeling of his friend's absence. Sartre describes that sense of the presence of the other man's non-presence with an extraordinary vividness and, ho hum, an exhaustive delicacy.
Something similar happened to me at the d'Offay Gallery last week, on the eve of the opening of the first show Sigmar Polke has had in London for about 15 years. Not that I'd expected to meet him there. I hadn't. I had already been told that he didn't want to be interviewed. Sigmar Polke, who is almost 60 years old now and is Germany's best-known post- Pop Art prankster, seldom says he wants to be interviewed, and even when he's agreed to be interviewed, he tends to play cat and mouse games with the unfortunate interviewer.
Glance through the cuttings files on him and you'll find acres and acres of wearisome and self-important exegesis, and almost nothing about the man himself. Polke, though by no means a gloomy, misanthropical recluse - quite the opposite, in fact - has managed to keep himself well hidden. He lives and works from a large bungalow-cum-factory in central Cologne, and he very seldom travels far - this is his first visit to England for 18 years.
When I arrived, a few hours before the private view, I was told that Polke had been there already, on the previous afternoon. And, no, he wouldn't be giving interviews, but he had asked whether there'd been press enquiries about the possibility of giving interviews. He'd also brought a video camera along with him so that he could film the d'Offay people talking to him about his work. I asked who'd held the camera. He had, I was told, which seemed like a minor miracle of sorts.
He'd be back a bit later - too late for me, unfortunately - to finish off giving titles to the new works in the show, a series of large paintings on paper, all executed in the last year as far as I could see. The titles were "a group effort". I glanced at a few of them. They were full of Polke's usual throwaway humour: We Come in Peace... Boom Boom Boom, When will it all end? Pissing in Coke, Spitting in Shoes. These were said to be his "London pictures", I was informed. It would be helpful if I could find even the most fleeting visual reference to London in any of them so that other people could be told, if they ever asked.
I stared hard at the one closest to me. As yet, it had no name. I looked forward with eager interest to the group decision about this one. As with so many of Polke's paintings, it was a collage of sorts, consisting of images superimposed, one upon another, and often partially or wholly obscuring each other. The clearest image - 19th century? - had been lifted from an old woodblock, and showed some people fishing on a river bank. The Thames!
Perhaps not. One stretch of tree-shrouded water was much like another stretch of tree-shrouded water, especially in the 19th century when there were so many more trees. This scene was partially overlaid by a spider's web of metallic colour, thin, iridescent, more washed across than painted. …