Sigmar Polke's Vivid Images of the Pictures That Vanish: Corcoran Exhibit Is Trip to Place of Terrifying Dreams

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 6, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Sigmar Polke's Vivid Images of the Pictures That Vanish: Corcoran Exhibit Is Trip to Place of Terrifying Dreams


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Experiencing "Sigmar Polke Photoworks: When Pictures Vanish" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is like swimming through the subconscious, through both ecstatic and terrifying dreams.

Looking at these 129 blackened, ephemeral, now-you-see-them-now-you-don't photographs of a Paris love affair, New York's Bowery bums, opium dens in Pakistan, a sleazy bar in Brazil and death images after a Francisco Goya painting, we enter a world much like that of the medieval painter visionaries Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

While Bosch and Brueghel came out of the hell-and-damnation beliefs of medieval Catholicism, both plumbed the dreaming and waking worlds much as Mr. Polke does. It is what exhibit curator Peter Schimmel calls "Polke's yearning for the unknowable" - and the ways that Mr. Polke tries to find, and show us, the incomprehensible - that make his work so remarkable.

Nothing about Mr. Polke's metaphysical search, nor his art, is easy. Mr. Schimmel points out, correctly, that Mr. Polke "used dangerous materials to create a dangerous art." The artist has always "painted" and "drawn" with photographic processes, whether they be collage, photogram, colorization, chemical manipulation, folding of the photographic paper - or combinations of those techniques.

From the beginning, after studying art from 1961 to 1968 at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, where he used the camera as a sketchbook, the artist was already experimenting with photography. Initially, he tried to elicit the magical aspects of objects around his house - children's toys, phonograph records, bamboo, scissors and records. Then, printing in a makeshift darkroom, he used accidents in the developing process to turn real objects into topsy-turvy, surreal images.

It was the beginning of what Mr. Schimmel calls Mr. Polke's "daredevil printing techniques."

* * *

Mr. Polke, 55, comes from an artistic family. Born in 1941 in Silesia, then in the eastern part of Germany, he was the seventh of eight children. His father was an architect, descended from craftsmen who created decorative ironwork for baroque churches. His grandfather was a photographer, as was his aunt, Else Raschdorf.

In 1945, during World War II, the family fled their home in front of advancing Russian troops. They settled first in Thuringen, Germany. Then, when Mr. Polke was 12, they crossed over to West Berlin and finally settled in Dusseldorf. From the age of 5, Sigmar Polke drew plants he collected, learning their Latin names and medicinal properties and stories about them. He was bored by secondary school and spent his free times in galleries and museums. It was then that he decided to become an artist.

When Mr. Polke entered Dusseldorf's Kunstakademie in 1961, American pop art was hot, and Joseph Beuys and the Fluxus group were exploring new materials and attitudes. Most of them were what the artists considered magical experiences acted out in performances and happenings and recorded in photographs and films. Mr. Polke would have none of it. He dismissed both abstraction and conceptual art and rejected German culture and materialism. His early paintings often simulated the graphic qualities of photographic reproductions.

Like many artists of his generation, Mr. Polke believed hallucinogenic drugs opened up new freedoms and creative possibilities beyond the customary rules for creating art. In the early 1970s, he began to explore hallucinogenic mushrooms.

"At this time I tried the mushroom," he said. "I ate them, and I smoked them as did many of my friends."

A 1971 trip to Paris formed one of his first major photographic series. It was created during the time when the artist adventurously extended the representational side of photography. He printed the series while under the influence of LSD. According to Mr. Schimmel, Mr. Polke was trying to find an equivalence between his highly experimental printing techniques - "fractured, incoherent, multifaceted, and kaleidoscopically layered images" - and the perceptual and psychological effects of the drugs.

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