Sigmar Polke: Photographic Obstruction

The Print Collector's Newsletter, Vol. XVI No. 3

July-August, 1985

The inherent ability to articulate objectively and organize the ephemera of the real world, to deliver a generosity of information rendered with clarity and precision, is a primary expectation of the photographic medium. Whether manipulative or interpretative, photographs utilize a vividly and consistently comprehensible vocabulary. Consequently, photographs exist as facts, and as such, arc privileged to the authority reserved for such irrefutable evidence. And, as facts, photogaphs most often reveal more than they attempt to conceal. One seldom leaves a photograph less informed than when one arrived.

The photographs of the German painter Sigmar Polke not confirm this characteristic, but contradict the factual immediacy of the photographic medium. The Alfred Kren Gallery in New York recently showed a series of 39 photographs Polke made in 1971. The occasion of an exhibition of photographs by Polke would seem to be a unique opportunity to gain insight to a body of work that has been notable for its elusiveness. But the veracity and specificity of the photographic medium has been effectively canceled, and this cancellation becomes a vehicle for Polke's predictably enigmatic and equivocal posture. Viewing the photographs induces the odd disorientation similar to, for instance, Hipping the stations on a television set in a foreign country: the familiarity of the medium is overwhelmed by the initially incomprehensible message.

Polke, who emigrated from East to West Germany in 1953, at age 12, emerged as a representative of the second generation of advanced artists in postwar Europe. In the early 1960s, Dusseldorf provided a nurturing alternative to the provincialism of the '50s and neutral ground from which to observe the activities of modernism in Paris and New York. Polke's early works can be interpreted as a response to and assimilation of the legacy of German Expressionism and the demise of Abstract Expressionism, and an affirmation of the American and British involvement with mediated imagery, the language of mechanical reproduction, and the valorization of mass culture iconography.

The European response to the Pop of the early '60s is the most obvious and recognizable issue in Polke's paintings. Polke and his colleagues contributed to the strategies of appropriation and recontextualization a characteristically European critique of the implicit ideology of representation in mass communication. The venerated romanticism of the modernist gesture was also appraised. Unlike Rauschenberg and in a less reticent, less diplomatic way than Johns, Polke includes abstract and tactile components in much of his early work as an ironic satirization of the enthusiasm and sincerity of this gesture. As with Rauschenberg, the conventions of painting's physical support were examined. Polke's use of unorthodox fabrics represented an acknowledgment of these mechanically reproduced visual artifacts and their ability to increase the density and complexity of the work.

Apart from this historical perspective, an understanding of Sigmar Polke's work is qualified by an acceptance of his specific ambiguity and his assertive rejection of commitment. The mythology that envelops his reputation is generated by this obscurity and a taciturn absence rather than presence. Polke is a voracious collector of images and information, but by constructing his own psychological labyrinth, disseminates little. This attitude is veiled by a veneer of neutrality and innocence, the camouflage needed by a pickpocket to work efficiently.

The series of photographs that arc under discussion here exemplifies these Polkean characteristics while at the same time undermining fundamental attributes of the photographic medium. Executed in Paris in 1971, the series of 39 prints utilizes, after the initial exposures had been made, a variety of darkroom techniques that are the dominant characteristic of the work. These darkroom manipulations provide greater compositional density and invention, and a gestural and free-form application of photographic chemistry that yields an abstracted and painterly object. These unorthodox photographic approaches include the printing of several negatives on the same sheet of photographic paper in an often overlapping and random sequence, the use of outdated photographic chemistry, which accounts for unpredictable tonal gradations and forms, and the sporadic brushing on of the developer to obtain a gestural and somewhat splotchy printing of the images. Within the discourse of' the photo.graphic community of the early '70s, these techniques suggested new options and an exploration of the potential of the medium. Experimentation with them paralleled social inquiries of the period and proposed a departure front the canons of' acceptable photo.graphic procedure. However, this correspondence between widespread photographic practice of the early '70s and Polke's own photographic methods is primarily visual. Polke uses the processes to obscure specificity and foreclose immediate interpretation, not to expand the photographic syntax. Polke uses photographs in his work mainly to investigate the manipulative tendency of processed images from popular culture. As a departure from the involvement with the formulas of depiction intrinsic in a mass image, this series of photographs is closer to the genre of thc snapshot, but without the formality of the amateur and the requisite self-consciousness of the camera's presence. There is a crude vulnerability and urgency, which infuses some passages in the work with an erotic tension. Some pictures possess a furtiveness reminiscent of surveillance and detective photographs. This sense of violated privacy emphasizes their implicit voyeurism; as observers we become increasingly separate from the intimacy of the participants. By its sequencing, repetition, and juxtapositions, the series assumes a narrative linearity, but one without the appropriate narrative conclusions and resolutions. Like the amateur, and perhaps pornographic home movie, our vision of the work is affected by the jumping flickering of images spliced together in random sequences. Woven into the fabric of the work arc various motifs and repeated images that, of course, are open to interpretation. But to speculate, for instance, that these photo.graphs form a cumulative portrait of a some.what anonymous woman is to impose an analysis of the work that would be presumptuous and irrelevant to what is of interest here. The information that the photographs were originally shot on a weekend in Paris, although helpful in synthesizing and fragments from the whole, docs little to provide the adhesive for an intentionally in-cohesive group of pictures. There are, however, individual images that can be placed within the context of Polke's work, and serve as metaphors for it.

Several of the prints show a classical statue of a female figure juxtaposed against the nude woman with her legs spread apart and a dark, ovoid stain on the negative obscuring the genitalia of the recumbent figure. Other prints propose an equation between this statue and a profile of, presumably, the same woman whose identity remains unclear. These pictorial relationships arc significant, perceived within the context of Polke's involvement in the issues of representation. As the photograph serves as a reproduction of reality in our present culture, so did the statue in a previous culture. Both representations function as icons and participate in the same mythological tissue. But the representation of a heroicized reproduction versus a representation of present-day reality also illustrates a discrepancy.

Another motif appears throughout the series is that of a hand-held mirror reflecting a nude torso. As a photographic metaphor, a mirror is defined by what it reflects and democratically objectifies all with which it comes in contact. A mirror converts the data of the three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional format. Like a camera, a mirror requires light to operate; indeed, mirror is an integral component of the camera's internal apparatus. Dispassionate and reportorial, the process of mirroring is thus a metaphor for Polke's photographic position: the casual neutrality prior to a manipulation by process and sequential strategies.

There is one print that exists alone and is not repeated in the series. It depicts a snafu of tangled film negatives. In this manner, negatives are not allowed to fulfill their purpose: to convey visual information . These negatives are identified by their appearance, and not by function and, as strips of individual frames, acknowledge their relationship to sequential and cinematic conventions.

Particular formal devices in this series can be related to Polke's painting. Polke appropriates images for his paintings using successive generations of reproductions, which reduce the nuances and subtleties of the depicted forms to a schematically recognizable code of identity. In photographic practice, the negative is the stencil: light rather than paint is the medium that penetrates the material containing an outline. Every photograph is, in essence, a copy or a translation of an original negative of an original event. The idea of photographic translation is central to Polke's sensibility. The photographic practice of overlapping and double-exposing negatives is a conveniently mechanistic method that parallels the layering of information in the most complex of Polke's works.

Contributing to the density of information embedded in these photographs is the method of darkroom solarization of selected portions of the images the gestural application of photographic chemistry, which opposes conventional doctrine and renders a handwrought appearance to each unique image. In much of his recent painting, an abstract, almost lyrical appearance has manifested itself. Characteristically, this abstraction does not represent the tradition of expressionistic passages illustrating internal or mythic situations, but caricatures this preoccupation in art. These superficial gestures appear as chemical solvents, like photographic chemistry itself, which dismisses surface physicality. Through this chemical process, the applied solvents and surface of support have become inseparable. It is the parallel between the alchemy of the photographic surface and the amorphic passages of the recent paintings, and their similar transitions from images to abstraction, that is notable. In both media, Polke has imbued the works with a sense of organic corrosion that operates as an oppositional force and-as if having been left to the elements-appears fluid rather than passive and inert. Predictably, the recognizable visual data is concealed and obscured by this layer of murky flotsam. Sigmar Polke's significance, after decades of neglect from the American art community, is increasingly being acknowledged and affirmed within a critical and market con.text. That an audience would exist for this particular group of photographs, although testament to Polke's importance, is perhaps more the result of the way delayed recognition overcompensates for past errors in judgment. This phenomenon, as well as our appetite for material that would assist in decoding Polke's position, make it difficult to objectively assess the true value of this work.

At one extreme, these photographs do not deserve serious analysis and interest and, under other circumstances, would have remained within the private domain of the artist. Lending credence to the argument for mere notational status is the departure from Polke's usual working medium, despite his consistent interest and practice of photography. But, as has been delineated, the work parallels issues and sensibilities Polke has consistently pursued throughout his painting career. The bona ILGH relevance of the work is the extent to which this direct involvement with the photographic medium has influenced Polke's recent pictorial strategies.

Stephen Frailey is a photographer living in New York.

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