by Paul Schimmel
(A version of this essay was first published in Sigmar Polke Photoworks: When Pictures Vanish, ed. Paul Schimmel, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), 59–83.)
Sigmar Polke’s art has perplexed critics and public alike with its multiplicity of styles, subjects, and positions. His paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures have variously been described as metaphysical and profound on the one hand, and jocular and deliberately dumb-witted on the other. Trying to hit Polke’s moving target with the cannon of art historical apparatus is no easy task. His densely layered work, with its commitment to finding again and again an equivalency between subject and technique, resists facile interpretation. The interplay of photography, film, painting, and sculpture throughout Polke’s oeuvre illustrates his chameleonic nature as an artist and his ever-changing focus of attention, but it also highlights his insatiable drive to experiment with and between the boundaries of established mediums. Polke’s photographic work, in particular, is characterized by incautiousness, both in the demanding and dangerous places he visited to find his subjects and in the daredevil printing techniques he used in his makeshift studio darkroom—aiming for methods that “fit with their subject,” as he characterized it. The artist was not above placing himself and his photography in harm’s way to realize a revolution in photography’s painterly printmaking capacity. “A negative is never finished,” he said. “You can handle a negative. You can do what you want. I can play with it. I can make with it. I can mix with it. I can choose with it.”
Polke’s Paris series (1971–72) marks the beginning of a period in which he adventurously—and almost recklessly—experimented with the manipulation of prints to extend the representational possibilities of photography. It was also the first in a series of photographic suites based on the artist’s journeys around the world to locales including Afghanistan, Australia, New York, Pakistan, and São Paulo. For Polke, the world was full of unexplored wonders, and the camera was a magic box that helped preserve his memories of them. With the Paris series, Polke began a new chapter in his artistic life, one in which painting and drawing took a backseat to his photographic activities. Shot during his first trip to the city, these photographs evoke the romantic spirit of a young man in love. Polke did not conceive of the hundred or so photographs he made as a cohesive suite when he shot them, though selections were subsequently published as such in conjunction with gallery exhibitions in Germany and New York.
Six months after he returned from Paris, the artist developed and printed the images while under the influence of LSD. Fractured, incoherent, multifaceted, and kaleidoscopically layered, the resulting photographs have been compared with the Cubist reconceptualization of time and space as simultaneous rather than linear; they also reflect certain characteristics of Futurism in this respect. They were most directly inspired, however, by Polke’s attempt to find an equivalence between printing techniques and the perceptual and psychological effects of hallucinogenic drugs. Taking the relatively conventional negatives of his Paris love story, Polke exploited what would be considered technical disasters by more conventional photographers: He over- and underexposed the film, overlapped and repeated images, and developed with outdated and inconsistently applied chemicals. The visual effects of this working method did not result from Polke’s search for a specific look or style, but from a desire to work as quickly as possible to print the entire suite in one “trip.” By applying developer to photographic paper, Polke was able to print a series of negatives on a single sheet relatively quickly. By developing a print while exposing it to a negative, he could work in a spontaneous, intuitive manner that involved the complex layering of images. The Paris series reveals a relationship between Polke’s personal life and art that was central to his work, as he sought to find commonalities between a subject he loved and the process of capturing that subject in photographs. In addition, the technical innovations he stumbled upon while producing this series had a profound effect on his subsequent photographs and paintings.
Polke’s use of intuition and the unconscious in his darkroom experiments roughly parallels the more refined experiments of his Dada and Surrealist predecessors. Like those artists, Polke benefited from the painter’s vision and liberated the medium from the central perspective of the objective lens. One particularly relevant precedent may be found in the work of Christian Schad, who created the first photogram. Schad’s associations with the Zurich Dada group and his close friendship with Walter Schirner, the extraordinary fake journalist, perpetrator of crimes, duelist, and language counterfeiter, anticipated Polke’s own interest in forgery, robbery, and la vie dangereuse. Similarly, Polke’s use of layering, overdrawing, found patterns, and nontraditional materials recalls works by Francis Picabia.
In 1974, Polke’s thirst for adventure and the unknown took him to Afghanistan. While there, he photographed and filmed a bear fight, a blood sport in which a bear is pitted against two or more dogs in a makeshift arena, under the provocation of their human trainers. More than one hundred paying spectators watched this raw spectacle of animal combat as entertainment. Throughout the brief match, which he filmed for less than four minutes, Polke moved back and forth to get both close-up and panoramic views, switching between his Nikon still camera and his 16mm movie camera. A sequence of fourteen photographs titled Der Biirenkampf (The Bear Fight, 1974) documents the scene.
In making Der Bärenkampf, Polke found in the life of the people a metaphor for the political realities of a particular time and place; here, the bear can be read as a symbol of Russia, while the dogs represent Afghanistan. The conflict between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, which was to play out on a world stage in the 1980s, was more than metaphorically present in the mid-1970s, when Polke made these pictures. (It is possible that he also saw this brutal battle as a metaphor for human conflict—just as Goya, an artist who deeply fascinated Polke, saw the same symbolism in the bullfight.) The technique Polke used to make Der Bärenkampf accentuated the danger and seriousness of his subject. He used trays smaller than the photographic paper to print these images, requiring the paper to be folded between five and seven times to fit. In addition, he printed the photographs so that the chemical residue of the development process left inconsistent stains—in some areas, the staining is so dense as to nearly obliterate the image.
Polke made numerous other photographs in Afghanistan, including images of menacing-looking soldiers and an unlikely shot of a surfboard atop a car crossing the Khyber Pass. During that same journey, Polke also photographed extensively in Quetta, Pakistan. There, he captured images of opium dens that ultimately became some of the most visually exquisite and carefully crafted photographs in his entire oeuvre. He shot these images in 1974, but it was not until three or four years later that he laboriously hand-colored the details of their imperfections, including handprints and scratches, to convey the mind-expanding experiences to be found there.
Polke made three different types of prints from these negatives. The first type comprises straight prints. For the second, Polke printed each of his photographic negatives of opium dens on top of one of an indeterminate subject of great density, a process that endowed the resulting images with a hazy darkness that conjures the mysterious and seductive atmosphere of his subjects. For the third set of works he produced, Polke colored the prints with egg tempera inks and gold and silver paint. His alterations and manipulations so beautifully interfere with the negative that the viewer becomes nearly as entranced and seduced by the images as Polke’s subjects were with their opium. With an unusual attention to craft and materiality, the artist painted the architectural and figurative elements in tones of orange, red, blue, green, purple, and turquoise. However, these rich, otherworldly colors are a mere backdrop for the real focus of Polke’s manipulation, as he carefully in-painted every scratch, fingerprint, and visual imperfection with silver and gold leaf, beginning with what was already in the negatives (as evidenced by looking at a set of the unretouched black-and-white photographs). Polke elaborated these imperfections to such a degree that they form a scrim of scratches, glitches, and dots between the viewer and the subject. In so doing, he created the visual equivalent of the white noise—the hum of murmuring voices—that both disrupts and ultimately informs the ritualized proceedings of the consumption of opium. Going a step further than the photographs of the Paris series, which were printed while Polke was under the influence of LSD, these opium den images materialize the experience of consuming a drug at the same time that they make drug-taking itself the subject of the work.
After finishing his series of hand-painted opium den pictures in 1978, Polke stopped making photographs until 1982, a cessation that coincided with a gentle downturn in his artistic output. The year 1982 was extraordinarily productive for Polke; he accomplished some of his most complex and dense paintings, and his photographic works paralleled this output. It was as if the artist had retreated into a prolonged period of gestation in order to burst forth into a year of feverish productivity in which history, memory, and metaphor interact in increasingly dense and layered compositions. Polke turned to the works of Antonin Artaud as the inspiration for one of his most personally revealing photographs of the 1980s: Artaud: Zwei kleine Zeichnungen (Artaud: Two Small Drawings, 1982). For this work, he practically assaulted a photograph of two portrait drawings by Artaud, overlaying it with chemicals, penlight, and hand-colored additions. On the left is Artaud’s portrait of a horned figure; on the right is his portrait of a male with viscous green fluid running out of his mouth and a hat on his head. This double portrait, perhaps symbolizing the artist himself, provided Polke with an opportunity to address the vexing issue of the unconscious, to explore his ability to represent sexual and primitive states of being, and to confront the unknowable dark side his own creativity, for all of which Artaud provided a historical antecedent.
Polke also created the most painterly photograph in his oeuvre, Composition, in 1982. In contrast to his chemical manipulations of the 1970s, the artist did not obscure the image through overexposure; instead, the exposure was so light, or the developer was applied for such a short period, that the image all but disappeared beneath the drips and spills of chemicals poured onto the curled photographic paper. In addition to printing a nearly invisible image, Polke manipulated the photographic paper prior to development through the use of photograms. He illuminated the Balinese shadow puppet with a raster pattern and with the linear scrawl of a penlight. He also highlighted the spontaneous marks of the development process with his hand-painted additions. Finally, Polke collaged on a series of four abstracted, postcard-size photographs and one picture of two people looking at an abstract painting hanging on a wall, setting up a dialogue between abstract and representational forms, a basic theme in his photographic work. This dialectic reflects his belief in the innate need of the spectator to read, decipher, and project recognizable content onto the most abstracted of compositions.
An anarchist by nature, Polke sought to create an art that moves seamlessly between the activities of the studio and the activities of life. Photography gave him the opportunity to explore the complex layering of popular, intellectual, personal, social, and scientific elements. His work was to go through a significant transformation during the 1980s, characterized by more experiments in the studio and darkroom and as well as self-imposed isolation from the community of artists that had figured in his earlier artistic milieu. In Polke’s search for altered states of reality, he first relied on chemicals found in nature to alter his perception of the world. Later, he would look to nature itself for representations that expressed altered states of being. Yet, in this exchange of internal experience for external focus, Polke gave up none of his fierce search for the immortal.
Published by Kicken Berlin, Berlin / Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf
Text by Paul Schimmel
Graphic design by Bureau Mario Lombardo, Berlin
Printing by Druck und Verlag Kettler GmbH, Bönen/Westfalen