April 13, 2014

A couple of thoughts about Sigmar Polke, "Alibis" at MOMA

Sigmar Polke - Church Windows Grossmünster Zürich from ikonoTV on Vimeo.

I've loved Sigmar Polke's art for a long time.  Naturally, I was excited to see the MOMA show Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, April 19-August 3, 2014.  The show is a retrospective and you get slices of artwork from his beginnings in the 1960's to the early 2000's.  I saw what I had expected to see, and a couple of things I had not expected.

I didn't expect to see so much of Polke's films in the exhibition. There are also films shot of Polke by his friends, which revealed to me the artist that I had always formed in my mind. The mad imp, he performs head stands on toilet bowls, he strips and jump in the river, he trembles and dances, he dances and trembles, he is something.

At a party, he dons a theatrical nose and fangs and mugs it up not just for the camera but for everyone at the party, jumping in their space, extending his face into exaggerated mixed expressions of delight and menace, a cartoon character jumped from the page to here-and-now life. He is the life of the party but most likely a life outside of the party too.  A life of the life!

(Or is he catatonic in the off hours when there is no party?   ...yet I want to doubt this. )

At the moment that I was watching these films, I recalled Paul McCarthy's performances and it was if Polke could easily walk into the set of McCarthy's "Painter" (1995).   I immediately compared and contrasted the two artists, ratiocinating.  Who came first?  Were they aware of one another? Did they know that they were kindred spirits?   How much of thus is merely a simple reflection of the time, the heyday if the 60's, when imps and forest gnomes abounded?

Zeno and Polke...

Later, I was listening to The Partially Examined Life podcast on Henri Bergson (Episode 93: Henri Bergson on How to do Metaphysics), they mention Cantorian infinities and Zeno's Paradox, I googled for more...  and along the way, I I thought about Polke.

1. Zeno of Elea

a. His Life

Zeno was born in about 490 B.C.E. in Elea, now Velia, in southern Italy; and he died in about 430 B.C.E. He was a friend and student of Parmenides, who was twenty-five years older and also from Elea. There is little additional, reliable information about Zeno's life. Plato remarked (in Parmenides 127b) that Parmenides took Zeno to Athens with him where he encountered Socrates, who was about twenty years younger than Zeno, but today's scholars consider this encounter to have been invented by Plato to improve the story line. Zeno is reported to have been arrested for taking weapons to rebels opposed to the tyrant who ruled Elea. When asked about his accomplices, Zeno said he wished to whisper something privately to the tyrant. But when the tyrant came near, Zeno bit him, and would not let go until he was stabbed. Diogenes Laërtius reported this apocryphal story seven hundred years after Zeno's death.

Biting the hand that feeds you, that's one way of keeping power honest. The implacable foe to tyranny?  Yes, to the worst consequence.  Would Sigmar do they same, that is, to bite to the stabbing?  McCarthy, probably. Polke would draw the blood, but I suspect he would stop short of the stabbing scene. There's more anger in McCarthy. Dark.  Even though his assistants affectionately call him 'Papa Smurf', when he's in character during his performances, I don't see him letting go.  But with all these differences aside, all of them are fighting injustice, albeit in different ways.

d. His Method

Before Zeno, Greek thinkers favored presenting their philosophical views by writing poetry. Zeno began the grand shift away from poetry toward a prose that contained explicit premises and conclusions. And he employed the method of indirect proof in his paradoxes by temporarily assuming some thesis that he opposed and then attempting to deduce an absurd conclusion or a contradiction, thereby undermining the temporary assumption. This method of indirect proof or reductio ad absurdum probably originated with his teacher Parmenides [although this is disputed in the scholarly literature], but Zeno used it more systematically.

The method of proof for Parmenides, Zeno, McCarthy and Polke is indirect, or reductio ad absurdum. All elements of their art is pushed to the extreme end of the envelope, but for Polke, he goes to the alchemical dimensions of paint, incorporating that legendary purple or violet that is squeezed from the hindquarters of a multitude of small insects (I'm not going to look this up, my corrupted memory is more entertaining), forbidden toxic colors, smoke from ancient oil lamps. This and all are philosophical arguments pushed just to the brink of total negation, all in the service of keeping us honest.

Or something like that.

The second thing I didn't expect was a video at the end of the show (not the one above), the stream of paintings seemed to stop at 2000. The video is last artwork you see in this show. It is of his creation of stained glass windows in a church in Germany. In it, I learned that Polke apprenticed to a stain glass maker when he was a kid. The film was like a skeleton key to Polke's oeuvre. You can see the fruits of his apprentiship blossom, his use of sliced agate is stunning in its material glory, luscious and AbEx in the way materiality is used to touch G-d. His reference imagery is shown and you can get a glimpse of his method of collage, the liberties he takes with the image, the latitude he gives his method of representation to his medium and the degree he allows the image to stay as it is found, ripped from civilization's information stream.

Posted by Dennis at April 13, 2014 3:11 PM

1 Comment

I like a lot the video. I'm happy I discovered this article and I found more interesting things about Sigmar Polke.

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