Not interested in politics? Well, politics is interested in you. While you go about your business, hustling to work on the train or in a car, amid the swarming crowd, politicians look down from on high, drawing lines--of national boundaries and corporate connections--making decisions about right and wrong. The artist/intellectual can sympathize with either position. He may be down here with us little guys, feeling his way through the system, bumping up against its flaws and failures, like George Grosz or, more recently, Mike Kelley. Or the artist may sir in judgment, telling us what would be best for us, serving up high-minded ideals, like Malevich or Daniel Buren. Sigmar Polke accepts neither role. He occasionally plays the fool, but he isn't the blinkered "little man," who gets us all into trouble by refusing to look and think. Nor does Polke accept the know-it-all pose of the omniscient all-seeing seer. Instead, he forces the two positions together, creating a point of interference where the individual mee ts the system.
Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art's John R. Lane and Charles Wylie, "Sigmar Polke" featured sixty-three paintings, drawings, and mechanically produced prints from the last four years. Four enclosed rooms were filled with relatively small works that draw on printing mistakes, eighteenth-century engravings, alchemical experiments, and newspaper photographs, with free-form abstraction thrown in for good measure. For the museum's huge central space, the artist produced new large-scale works using imagery he collected from German and Texan newspapers over several weeks last summer.
Polke prepares viewers for the exhibition with a monumental work at the entranceway--a giant photographic image of the Seventh Cavalry graves at Little Bighorn, screenprinted on fabric in a commercial process that produces what the artist calls a "machine painting." For Native Americans, Little Bighorn represents a heroic moment when they overcame the US military's invasion of Montana. (Of course, they won the battle but lost the war, and were systematically slaughtered.) For most Americans, however, Little Bighorn is Custer Country, memorialized by a monument to soldiers who lost their lives fighting for freedom. Everything depends on your point of view.
The first two paintings in the central space were called History of Everything, land II, both 2002. Each one is made on white canvaslike fabric, divided into a grid of twelve black-bordered squares, every frame of which bears an image--except for a center block, which is a semitransparent, iridescent panel that, like a scrim, allows audiences to see the painting's stretcher bars. History of Everything, I catalogues abstract marks, dots, and blobs reminiscent of Polke's earlier work with printing errors and Xerox drawings (which take static, digital marks and turn them into vectors). The work's companion piece features representational but low-resolution halftone images of subjects: soft-core spanking girls, a cartoonish Oktoberfest scene, sci-fi aliens, two people lying on a beach, a man sitting, a family, a man walking (after Millet's Sower?), another man bending over (after Courbet's Stonebreakers?), and a couple of Afghanis on horseback shown three times (seen clearly from a middle distance, from a bird's -eye view, and then wildly enlarged, brought too close, so that the men become abstract information).
Polke played with this last image throughout the show. The source material is revealed in The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, 2002: a blown-up diagram, taken from a German newspaper, of a Predator drone plane locking its beam on tiny abstract forms on the ground. An inset shows a close-up view of these figures, which turn out to be bearded and rurbaned men on horseback, with a caption that reads (in German) "From up to 7,600 meters, the Predator sends a series of high resolution pictures." The diagram also depicts the aircraft's transmission of the image via satellite to a US Army base in Kuwait, and around the world, from Uzbekistan to the CIA and Pentagon in Washington and the RAF in London. …