SIGMAR POLKE'S tall artworks which cover a wall with shifting
colors are a looming presence, like Gibraltar or the Black Slab in
Kubrick's "200l" or flying into a bank of storm clouds.
Yhey are part of a mysterious series by the German-born artist
included in the show on view through May 5 at the Hirshhorn Museum
and Sculpture Garden. They are grouped under the title "The Spirits
That Lend Strength Are Invisible." One painting has a subtitle:
"Tellurium Terrestrial Material" because it's made of pure
tellurium, a semimetallic element related to selenium and sulfur. In
this case, pure tellurium is blown onto artificial resin on a huge
canvas, 157 in. by 118 1/2 in.
The resulting art is enormous, shiny, glistening, and extremely
hard looking, like armor. The second in the series, a whirl of golds
and yellows contains one kilogram of a meteor (extraterrestrial
material found west of Tocopilla, Chile), thrown onto artificial
The third contains layers of nickel in artificial resin; silver
nitrate is used in the fourth, subtitled "Salt of Silver" and the
fifth subtitled "Otter Creek," includes silver leaf, neolithic
tools, and artificial resin on canvas. You can see the neolithic
tools, which look like metallic arrow heads, embedded in the
The overall effect of the five large "alchemic" works, which
could be unearthly abstract expressionist paintings, is
inexplicable. The artificial resin used has a golden sheen, which
lights up the paintings as you move around them. And the appearance
of the works shifts according to temperature and humidity, like a
"The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible" series title was
based on a Native American proverb. The show's organizer, John
Caldwell, curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art, says in the catalog that "The whole suite is
an homage to and meditation on the Americas because it utilizes for
its creation only materials associated with the New World as opposed
He also calls it "a culmination of his work to date 201 a series
of five paintings (Polke) made for the 1988 Carnegie International
exhibition in Pittsburgh...."
More than l00 of Polke's paintings, works on paper and special
art works are included in the show, his first full retrospective in
the United States. Polke's influence on other artists is
significant, but he is better known in Europe.
Another unforgettable series, which illustrates Polke's melding
of social consciousness with art is the haunting "Watchtower"
grouping. Again, the works of art are huge ("Watchtower with Geese")
is 114 3/16 inches square).
Polke's high, spindly, sinister watchtower has a cumulative
effect in series, like Monet's haystacks or Rouen cathedrals or
Cezanne's Chateau Noirs.
While this series is compelling, it is also grim, full of the
tragedy of the Nazi concentration camps.
This is most evident in Watchtower 11, done in silver, silver
oxide, and artificial resin on canvas - the watchtower seen through
a murky half-light. But Polke seems to treat it as gallows humor in
"Watchtower with Geese" which juxtaposes the watchtower symbol with
fabric on which a gaggle of geese waddles.
But the surrealistic horror of his concentration camp images
comes through most clearly in his earlier "Lager" (Camp), which
comes at you like an enormous freight train, 14 feet high and eight
feet wide. …