sigmar polke with vava and ida


In the last part of April, I went to the Osaka National Museum of Art with my friends Ida-san and Vava-san to see the Sigmar Polke exhibit, which was really great. The pieces on display were from Polke’s own collection and personally chosen by him as representative of his life and work, which is a feat if there ever was one since his work is by its very nature multiform, heterogeneous, anarchic, and undogmatic — precisely the type of work that is exceedingly difficult to categorize. Because of the difficulty in defining Polke’s work as part of a “school” or a “movement,” he’s less well known as an artist than, say, Roy Lichtenstein, with whom he is often (erroneously) compared. Even Gerhard Richter — Polke’s contemporary — is known more widely than Polke; probably at least in part because Richter’s (recent) work can relatively easily be tagged with a conceptual byline.

In fact, walking through the Polke exhibit, so many styles, experiments, media, and formats were available that the show could easily have been mistaken for a group exhibit. I really admire this about Polke’s work — the late 20th century has an almost endless variety of aesthetic possibility on offer, so why limit yourself to a single style or voice, simply in an effort to solidify your reputation as auteur? Polke’s style is often characterized by the moniker “Capitalist Realism,” a term that he coined with Richter at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. This “anti-style” is defined by its use of pop imagery, though by no means is this a kind of celebration of the aesthetic power of commercialism a la Warhol and Lichtenstein. Instead I would say that, as with its play on “Socialist Realism,” Capitalist Realism is intended to highlight an ineluctable authoritative/authoritarian discourse. The pervasiveness of capitalism makes itself felt in Polke’s work, but he never lets it become a monolithic force of domination — instead it’s a kind of dreaming that he seems to be unable to escape being involved in, a dreaming that contains images and affects that can at once be liberatory (the promesse du bonheur) and stultifying. The complex interaction that Polke’s work has with pop imagery makes each piece an investigation rather than a mere continuation of a ready-to-hand interpretive framework that has already exhausted its interpretive potential.

This, of course, is still too limiting an account of Polke’s work, which is about pleasure and aesthetic experience in its own right, outside of both the sanctioned frameworks of academic interpretation, and the aesthetic jail of capitalist consciousness.

This is also too limiting an account of the fun time I had with Vava-san and Ida-san, which ended with coffee at a nearby café that also doubled as an art gallery, studio, and bookstore. This kind of confluence of creative spaces seems to be more common in Japan than in the U.S. Perhaps this is because communities that self identify as non-consumerist are rarer in Japan and, as such, tend to coalesce. Although it also makes me think of Brecht and his dictum that art should both be alienating, and enjoyable as well. For Brecht, smoking and drinking were de rigueur activities at the theatre — a kind of rejection of bourgeois notions of ‘bodily purity’ that were actually intended to function as a regime to keep workers at ‘top efficiency.’ In short, a lovely time of non-efficient coffee drinking and teacake eating and delinquent-level aesthetic pleasure basking.

alice in wonderland

Alice in Wonderland (1971) is one of my favorite pieces from the Polke show. If memory serves, this canvas was rather enormous at about two meters by three meters, the size of it all creating a monumental sense of caterpillarness. Painted on sheets decorated with a soccer-motif print, Alice stands in awe of the Caterpillar in the same languidly confused way that we might stand in awe of printed soccer sheets if we could feel as estranged from capitalism as Alice felt estranged in Wonderland. The conjunction of these two semiotic threads — both of them easily recognizable on their own — creates a joyful unease on the canvas. Clearly Alice and soccer were never meant to go together.


The subtitle of The Dream of Menelaus II (1982) is “(Cow and Sheep Go Together but the Eagle Climbs Alone),” a sentiment that I’ve always agreed with. Menelaus was, of course, the father of Helen, putative cause of the Trojan War. I think this piece, part of a four canvas tour de force, is a commentary on political fantasy, i.e. the dreamlike state of mind that accompanies rapid and dramatic political change. Perhaps influenced by the afterhistory of Germany’s Red Army Faction, as well as widespread acts of public protest and discontent throughout the Soviet satellites and Western European nations as well, the dream reminds me of Robin’s surreal visions in Hawthorne’s short story “My Kinsman Major Molineux,” visions that can only come alive during a time of political rift in which the naturalized ground of the real has become mighty unstable. The silk-screened thrower of the Molotov cocktail stands out like a high-contrast newspaper photo, but the paint that floats in the air around this figure suggests not explosion, but rather a slow-motion dream logic that emerges at the moment when the social and the political melt into air.


Magnetic Landscape (1982) really needs to be seen directly in order to be ‘felt.’ The paint is thick on the canvas, like a topographical, and the relationships on the canvas, its moments, draw the eye into an impossible feeling of the force of things. Somehow the square of the frame of the canvas gets ‘bent’ in the looking at it; that is, the magnetism in the canvas creates an experience of movement that absolutely outdistances the stasis of its frame.

And I haven’t even had a chance to mention Polke’s outstanding (and mystical!) Magic Squares series, or his Police Pig, which is nothing if not a perfect anti-fascist visual joke.

In the end what may really distinguish Polke from Lichtenstein is the fact that Polke’s work, though it employs raster dots, has been unable to make its way back into pop culture via the museum mug, the t-shirt, and the calendar. Of course, I’m only thinking of this because I’ve just been to Uniqlo to buy myself some t-shirts, including a Lichtenstein-branded image of diner food (only 700 yen!), which looks great on a t-shirt but would be less convincing on a canvas at this stage. Uniqlo is also selling 77th (?) anniversary Popeye shirts, as well as a shirt featuring a deer shooting a forked snake tongue from its mouth. But I haven’t been able to find that one in a medium yet.

The Sigmar Polke exhibit at the Osaka National Museum of Art runs until July 17, 2006.

Click here for the official Osaka National Museum of Art homepage.

Click here for an artscape international article about this exhibition.


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