The Many Guises of Sigmar Polke

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IN a dark suit, glasses, and thinning blond hair, this man looks like a well-established businessman. As I talk to him at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, I ask myself whether this can be the enigmatic, eccentric, and chameleon-like Sigmar Polke - one of the most seminal and controversial of contemporary German artists.

Polke is enormously popular with the younger artists of his country and has even influenced some of the rising generation in the United States. While he paints in series, he avoids, apparently with great determination, a "signature style" that is uniquely and recognizably his. Someone unfamiliar with his total oeuvre could easily be persuaded that his recent US exhibit was the work of several artists - so different are his various phases.

Sigmar Polke was born in Oels in what was then Germany. He showed the cool strength of his character when, at 12 years old, he decided he would have a better chance in West Germany and crossed the border on a Berlin subway. He later studied the craft of glass painting; this may be the origin of his later experiments with unconventional materials for his canvases.

When he was 20, he enrolled in the Art Academy in Dusseldorf. Two years later, he and two friends founded a style they called "capitalist realism playing on the name of the artistic movement then dominant in Soviet-bloc countries, socialist realism. This was a variant on American Pop Art. The first examples were flatly painted everyday objects, some of which, like a chocolate bar with nuts, were in short supply. Another painting in this style, "Liebespaar II" (Lovers II), is a typically satiric look at graphics of commercial advertising; it is a throwaway image. It is hard to say just what the prominent colored dots and open circles superimposed on the woman signify, but they may suggest that there are hidden layers of meaning even in the most banal presentations.

One of the most ardent collectors of Polke's work wrote, "{He} never dips his brush into the same pot twice." He dipped his ironic brush into the pots of virtually all the various "isms," methods and modes of art in the years following. One of his inventions was superimposing drawings of figures over a ground of printed fabric. In "Hochsitz mid Ganse" (Watchtower with Geese), he covers a huge nine-and-a-half foot square "canvas" with three fabrics: one is quilted magenta, another is neutral-colored striped, and a third is black, with white motifs of sunglasses, beach chairs, and umbrellas. All three fabrics are crudely sewn together.

Polke painted two series dealing with concentration camp themes. In the first, called "Camp," he uses barbed wire as the dominant image. …