Tuesday, 5 August 2008



Polke’s stylistic lineage is obvious and yet puzzling. Like colleague Gerhard Richter, Polke’s career benefits from the success of a younger generation of German painters in the late 70s and early 80s, the Neue Wilden or Neo-Expressionists. Interest in immediate precedents then recognises Polke’s steady drift from Pop Art, his broadening sources, provocative themes, layers of imagery transferred as metaphors, perhaps allegory (see also Posts 26, 40 and 97). But in as much as he exerts an influence, it is only on artists like Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, initially based in Hamburg, where Polke was employed as a teacher. However his interests encompass as much abstraction and process as impulsive expression, and while this scope (also shared by Richter) surely influences later Cologne-based artists (see also Posts 76 and 82) it is curious, given how little impact Minimalism or Pattern and Decoration have upon German painting directly, how much of it Polke converts.

Polke finally remains loyal to a print sampling model for painting (again, like Richter) that no longer exerts influence, looks decidedly nostalgic by digital and multimedia standards; seems rather to encapsulate a by-gone era. Through it, he sums up many of the concerns of the late 20th century, not least the ambition of a grand synthesis of the abstract and figurative, the painterly and print-sourced, pattern and permutation, 2-D and 3-D. But for Polke, these strands are there almost from the start, in the early 60s. One of the reasons his work seemingly lacks the consistency of Richter, is because his options quickly multiply. If he lacks the commitment to be more than peripheral to Pop Art, it is because Pop Art is quickly peripheral to his commitment.

Polke’s development lies along three lines. The first expands upon print sources for painting, begins with commercial illustration and half-tone screens from common sources, usually, but not always photographic, to gradually include stencils and tracing identified as such by familiar sources, eventually to traditional woodcuts or etchings, these in turn subject to tone screens, more recently, even pixels, and transcribed with varying diligence. The second expands upon print content, begins with obvious and mundane print subjects (see also Posts 16, 61 and 89) then moves to content associated with other kinds of print or stencil, to traditional and historical themes. The third deals with print accuracy or efficiency of process and begins with the ‘dot gain’ to greatly enlarged details of tone screens, accenting distortion or loss of content. Polke then, surprisingly, adopts printed fabrics as supports, contrasting the strictness or accuracy of print, as well as regularity of pattern, with additional painting. Painting’s role as foil or errant instance of print or pattern is then highlighted by its abrupt interruption to the supporting surface. It is this deft alignment of painted canvas with printed fabric that smoothly assimilates pattern and abstraction, exploits figurative motifs as well as more abstract pattern.

Polke can then contrast geometric printed fabrics with clichéd stencils, with vigorous or casual treatment, tracing or more idle depiction, or use more figurative printed fabrics for additional and irregular figuration, further stencils of varying accuracy or recognition, multiple layers. Indeed, a key trait is system or pattern extended or contrasted with unexpected fragments, faltering technique. Polke can mock ‘the rules’ for formal composition, the banality of painting’s abstraction, or the rigour of its enforcement, but ultimately there are sources projected, ‘authorities’, no matter how diminished or distant. This testing or stretching of order or authority, is carried through to content, reflected in political and sexual themes, exotic and historical settings.

Printed fabrics subsequently invite sheer or transparent supports that appeal directly to the stretcher braces as structure or pattern, insist upon an explicit three-dimensional element to the flimsiest of two-dimensional content. And again, this formal feature has its counterpart in the themes, in quaint custom, ritual and formalities. His later interest in freer gesture or application, in spills and delayed chemical reactions for pigment, do not so much deny regularity or compliance with print instance or norm as invoke more occult or mystic powers, ‘higher’ but less reliable authorities, are echoed in the choice of folk tales and maxims, more diffuse imprinting. Polke ‘obeys’ them all, to the extent that they disrupt and obscure one another, to the extent that one marvels at the options, notes the hollow, degraded and eccentric instance, once set against others.

A Polke dot is never a polka dot, is always an enigma plot or a stigma halter, the spots for pics point to optical tricks, for the poked pried loose of the poker.