German Artist Sigmar Polke
Louise Sweeney, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 resin.
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 painting.
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 "mood" ring.
"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 to Europe."
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. …