MoMA and Tate come to Tirana via Sigmar Polke

The self-proclaimed lover of dots, Sigmar Polke offers his dots to the public unconnected

"The late German artist Sigmar Polke was not the type to make things easy for anyone...Polke’s mercurial nature [is seen] as a way of remaining free. I don’t think there are many artists who have been able to elude definition quite as successively." - New York Observer

For someone who eluded definition as much as everyone says, Sigmar Polke gave the public much material to work with, in terms of quantity, with thousands of multi-layered works and long, descriptive titles. It is the quality or, rather, the substance of these works that seems to make Polke one of the most mysterious figures in the art world. An artist in the truest sense, for Polke his art was the sole method of self-expression he could offer to the public.

“I’ve lost count of how many dots I’ve painted in my life,” Polke has famously said.

Yes, like a true artist, the self-proclaimed lover of dots, Sigmar Polke offers his dots to the public, unconnected.  (Read my related essay on connect-the-dots and the role of the artist)

Sigmar Polke’s exhibition in the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, Music from an unknown source, is organized in such a way that it plays with your ability of the recollection and the analysis of multiple layers of images, materials, and text. While it is all one collection, you quite soon understand there are sub-themes within the exhibit in that most paintings can be grouped together according to their color palettes or captions, or titles. Some works, very similar to Lichtenstein’s and less so to Warhol's pure pop art ("It was pointed out to me by the American artist Richard Tuttle that people who lose wars imitate the winners, and Polke not surprisingly looked at the Americans – Warhol and Lichtenstein – and put his own spin on their work"), resemble comics or traditional capitalist advertisements; some others are much less clear in their imagery, much more abstract and evasive. As you walk through the exhibit, you ask yourself “Have I seen this before? And what did its caption say?”

The way the work has been placed in the gallery purposefully stops the excessive desire you may have for immediate categorization.  This instant urge comes from a need to understand and figure it all out immediately. However, as you continue walking through the exhibition, you realize that this desire for grouping and categorization finally leaves your body. "Yes, it would have been wrong," you think. Spreading similar works around the gallery, mixing them with other seemingly non-related works, saved the works themselves from becoming repetitive and monotonous and, thus, gave each painting the chance to properly shine on its own.

[Polke] worked in off-the-wall materials ranging from meteor dust to gold, bubble wrap, snail juice, potatoes, soot and even uranium, all the while resisting easy categorisation. (from Tate Modern)

You will want to go back to the start of the exhibition, but you know you really should keep moving forward. Going back to understand the beginning with the wisdom of the future isn’t a luxury we are given in life, but in the gallery we are fully aware that we can do it. Yet, I did not go back. I tried the powers of my own recollection, tested myself on how much I paid attention to detail, how much of it I took for granted. Going through this particular gallery was an exercise in life. Similar to life, the idea is not to fully analyze, compare and contrast all works as if you are completing an assignment. Because, group and categorize as much as you like, you will not arrive at a final correct answer.

Sigmar Polke is one of the most prolific contemporary artists in the world and perhaps not as well-known as he should be. Timeout explains why:"Sigmar Polke’s name isn’t (yet) up there with the giants of twentieth-century art. Maybe that’s because at every stage of his career he mocked, derided and rebelled against every art movement, historical legacy and consumerist ideal he encountered." His satirical style, as critical as it is playful, his apparent lack of seriousness is the element that makes his work that much more attractive for the public. His confidence can be felt as soon as one enters the gallery: the variety of colors, bright splashes of color in some works, black and iridescent nuances in others, the different levels of paint density, some light touches, and other oppressive, heavy strokes, the layers, some barely transparent, and other aggressively dominating and, finally, the glaring absence of the traditional canvas. His works are audacious, confident, anything but monotonous, in every sense of the word.

What Kurt Vonnegut was to postwar literature, Polke was to postwar art. Neither could take anything seriously, including themselves. Each saw the risk of building up false idols after the fascist faith that drove Europe into a hellish depth and threatened to take the rest of the world with it. In the face of such dread seriousness, each armed himself with laughter and wit. Their memories will endure as long as there are cults of personality looming on the horizon and big men asking to be cut down to size. (from Big Think)

The layers found in the paintings can also be found in their captions. These cryptic titles require much thought, perhaps more than you have time to devote to them in one simple visit to the gallery. Deciphering the paintings and their captions turns the walk around the gallery into a pleasant riddle that does not end as you exit the exhibition. Similar to [good] poetry, one has to take his time to figure out the layers of meaning and symbolism beneath the surface. As much as we would like, this also cannot be done in one moment. It takes time - days, months, even years and several revisits.

You will want to return here to figure it all out. But in its impossibility in the far future, you understand that this particular exhibit is one of those [rare] cases where you were simply grateful to have “enjoyed the journey” and feel automatically more alive in doing so.

Read about his [late in life] exhibit at MoMA here

Currently (until February 8, 2015), there is an exhibition of Polke's works entitled Alibis at the Tate Modern, the first retrospective to bring together many of the works of a five decade long career. Read more about it here.


Note: The image gallery below represents only half of the works that can be found at the exhibit.