ART : Sigmar Polke's Layered Look : The photographs of the influential German are hard to pin down--as is the artist himself.

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

To interview German artist Sigmar Polke is to know how Margaret Dumont must've felt trying to get a straight answer out of the Marx Brothers. Granted, it's kind of fun having Polke run circles around you as he deftly deflects every question you lob his way, but it's hard to respect yourself later when you realize that he got through the interview without revealing much about himself. He's an elusive character, but he's so bloody charming it's easy to overlook that fact.

Regarded as one of the most significant creative forces to emerge from post-World War II Europe, the 54-year-old artist will be seen in depth in Los Angeles for the first time in "When Pictures Vanish," a comprehensive survey of his photographic work of the past 28 years that opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art. An influence on several artists who came to prominence in the '80s--David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Richard Prince and Annette Messager to name a few--Polke is primarily known for densely layered paintings that combine unorthodox materials and methodologies. He often paints on printed fabric rather than canvas, for instance, and for the 1986 Venice Biennale created "Athanor," a massive installation comprising murals coated with chemicals that responded to light and humidity, resulting in an image in constant flux.

Above all else, Polke is a free-wheeling iconoclast who refuses to be pinned down to any style or school. Coming of age as an artist in Duesseldorf during the '60s, Polke was a colleague of Germany's genre-bending titan Joseph Beuys, who taught at the Duesseldorf Art Academy from 1961 to '71; like Beuys, Polke doesn't just steadfastly reject conventional approaches and beliefs about art-making--he barely seems to notice such conventions exist.

His relationship with his photographs illustrates this point neatly. The MOCA galleries are hung with 120 one-of-a-kind prints (Polke tends to work in series but doesn't do editions), most of which are on loan from collections of major museums around the world. The works tend to be extraordinarily large for photographs, and many were made using unstable materials that render the images quite fragile. Nonetheless, Polke says he has no problem with the idea of knocking any one of them out of its expensive frame and re-invading the image.

"A negative is never finished," says Polke, who views the darkroom as a stage where he performs, subjecting his negatives to all manner of abuse that includes folding the prints as they're developing, treating them with radioactive substances, and drawing and painting on them.

Nor does he care what happens to the work after he's dead and gone, or if it earns him a place in the history books. He seems to be unusually comfortable with the notion of impermanence and is quick to point out that at any given moment there are many different realities unfolding simultaneously. These attitudes--which are reflected in a creative methodology rooted in processes of layering and distortion--make sense when one begins to piece together the story of his life.

Not that Polke will tell you much about himself or his work. Strolling through the MOCA galleries with curator Paul Schimmel, who assembled this show, we run into Polke and his companion, Augustina von Nagel. Introductions are made, then Polke gestures at my sheaf of notes and inquires, "What's that for?" When I reply that I'm going to interview him, a mischievous smile flickers across his face that seems to say, "That's what you think." He then abruptly positions me in front of the reflective surface of a large, dark photograph, snaps a picture of our reflections in the glass, and we're off.

Polke begins the conversation with the observation that since I'm chewing gum perhaps he should chew a piece too, so we'll understand each other better. I accommodate his request, then ask a question about French Modernist Francis Picabia, an artist he's often compared to, and whom he once described as "the last European artist."

"Picabia is a very old painter who some people try to connect me to, but I refuse such comparisons very well," he replies. "But what has this to do with anything? We can't begin with Picabia falling out of the sky into the middle of our conversation!"

Having been warned against probing into Polke's personal life, I'd planned to start with innocuous art history questions then move on to the thornier stuff, but it dawns on me that he doesn't plan to tell me anything no matter what approach I take. In that case, I figure we might as well plunge into the biographical questions.

Born in Silesia, Germany, in 1941, the seventh in a family of eight children, Polke says, "I began drawing as a very young child and had a grandfather who experimented with photography, so those things constituted my first exposure to art.

"I was raised during the war, however, and the trauma of that upheaval dominated my childhood," continues Polke, whose father was an architect descended from artisans who produced decorative ironwork for Baroque churches. "We were very poor and my family lost everything during the war--our home and our identity. But I'm a believer in luck and think the social conditions you're born into provide the opportunity for you to prove your luck. And I suppose I've been lucky."

Polke's luck began with his escape from East Germany into West Germany in 1953. He was 12 years old at the time and simply rode the train from east to west, pretending to be asleep so he'd be left undisturbed. As to where he went or what he did on arriving in the West, all he'll offer about this period of his life is "I was alone."

It was then that Polke decided on a life as an artist. He began spending his free time in galleries and museums and landed a job working as an apprentice in a stained-glass factory, where he worked until 1961, when he was accepted at the Duesseldorf Art Academy.

"I wasn't a student of Joseph Beuys but he was a strong presence at the academy when I was there," recalls Polke. "Beuys broke up the old structure of teaching and brought new life into German art, so it was an interesting time to be there."

In 1968, the year after he left the art academy, Polke published a portfolio of 14 photographs of small sculptures he'd made from odds and ends--buttons, balloons, a glove. Essentially a self-taught photographer, Polke spent the next three years painting, experimenting with filmmaking and performance art, and fiddling around with film and developing chemicals in an attempt to find out how far they could be pushed.

From 1968 to '71, he completed several films and took thousands of photographs, most of which he couldn't afford to print. Now, of course, Polke has plenty of money, but the getting of it hasn't had a noticeable effect on his art. "Money does makes life easier though," he says. "I no longer have to travel by foot and can now go by train or magic carpet."

In 1971 Polke's life changed in a way that would have a major impact on his art-making. Married at the time and the father of two children, he fell in love with another woman and began what would end up being a decade on the road. "My life changed because I fell in love--too much naked woman," laughs Polke, who presently lives in Cologne. "Because I was traveling a lot during the '70s, the only thing I could do on the road was take photographs, so there wasn't much painting during those years."

Polke's first stop was Paris, where he shot a sequential narrative revolving around a trip to the Louvre, then developed and printed the pictures while on LSD. (During this period Polke investigated the potential of various mind-altering substances as a tool for art-making, and made several images of magic mushrooms.)

In 1973 he visited the U.S. with artist James Lee Byars in search of the "other" America; the fruit of that journey was a series of manipulated images of homeless alcoholics living on New York's Bowery. Subsequent series include studies of a staged fight between a bear and a dog in Afghanistan, a gay bar in Sa~o Paulo, Brazil, and an opium den in Pakistan.

Though Polke would no doubt cringe at the comparison, his quest for extremes of experience puts one in mind of British visionary William Blake, Blake's friend the Swiss Romantic Henry Fuseli, French Symbolist Odilon Redon, and Viennese Secessionists like Gustav Klimt. As is true of Polke, all these artists were preoccupied with themes of mysticism, magic and eros (and, curiously, all had careers that spanned the changing of a century, as will Polke's).

The exotic heat that comes off of Polke's photographs is attributable both to their subject matter and to the fact that he ventured into some dicey situations in order to make them. "There has to be an element of risk-taking for me in my work," he confirms, then adds, "however, I no longer drink, smoke or take drug. I stopped because I felt I'd had enough, but I learned a great deal from drugs--the most important thing being that the conventional definition of reality, and the idea of 'normal life,' mean nothing. Nor is there life after death--these are the facts we must deal with."

Polke may no longer ingest intoxicants, but will admit to an ongoing interest in alchemy. "It's not something you can study in any kind of official way, rather, it's something you come to understand through experience," says the artist, who's presently reading a book on African sorcery titled "Double Face." "Many psychological theories attempt to explain it--Jung, for instance, thought about it a good deal. Elements of science and chemistry are also at play in alchemy, and theology and philosophy as well. I've never been interested in philosophy, but some of Jung's ideas seem useful in helping people understand pictures and so forth."

The '80s saw Polke's photographic works moving in an increasingly abstract direction. Included in this period of work is a series of images exploring Francisco Goya's 1812 painting "The Old Women," which interested Polke because of what Goya chose to omit from it (X-rays reveal that Goya's original sketch included an image of the Resurrection of Christ that the artist subsequently painted out). Other works from this period include references to French visionary Antonin Artaud and Italian composer Nicolo Paganini.

Much of this work was included in a 1990 exhibition in Baden-Baden that was the first to take an in-depth look at Polke's photography. Schimmel's show picks up where that one left off by including several previously unexhibited works, among them a series titled "Aachener Strasse," completed this year in collaboration with Augustina von Nagel. A suite of 35 prints that combine street photography with images from Polke's paintings, the works were developed using techniques of multiple exposures and multiple negatives.

"Augustina's a very good artist whom I've worked with for six years," says Polke. "She helped me with the technical aspects of the exhibition in Baden-Baden, but with this series she participated on an artistic level, too. Having worked this way together, I could easily imagine collaborating with her on paintings as well."

Asked if his photographs explore markedly different ideas than those addressed in his paintings, Polke sighs before replying that "a question like that provokes many answers, but language is not as quick as the imagination. By making pictures, you learn the many different properties of photography. I use those properties differently than, say, an advertising agency would, but we're both operating in the same reality. A face painted by Picasso occupies the same reality as a portrait by Stieglitz. So, no, I don't see a big difference between painting and photography--moreover, such distinctions mean nothing to me."

As to whether art has any responsibility to the culture that produces it, Polke looks aghast at the idea, then exclaims, "People expect things from art that are horrible for us who make it! They put the things we make in these restrictive places called museums, then don't want to hear another word from us. Joseph Beuys tried to find some solutions for society, but nobody believed in him. Yes, Beuys has been enshrined in museums around the world, but the things he really wanted to do and the changes he dreamed of amounted to nothing. I feel I have no responsibility toward Western civilization of the late 20th Century because nobody consulted me about any of the things taking place in it.'

"Yes, my works too are enshrined in museums, but I don't care if the pieces fall apart in 20 years," he adds. "And as for art history--I tear the pages out of the history books and throw them away!" With that he jumps up from his chair, signaling that the interview is over.

* "When Pictures Vanish," Museum of Contemporary Art at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave. Open Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Through March 24. Adults, $6; senior citizens and students, $4. (213) 626-6222.

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