Palazzo Grassi presents the first retrospective show in Italy dedicated to Sigmar Polke (1941-2010).
Conceived by Elena Geuna and Guy Tosatto, director of the Musée de Grenoble,
in close collaboration with The Estate of Sigmar Polke, the exhibition spans the
artist’s entire career from the 1960s to the 2000s and underlines the variety of his
artistic practice. It brings together nearly ninety works from the Pinault
Collection and numerous other public and private collections.
This retrospective is part of Palazzo Grassi’s exhibition programme that
alternates thematic exhibitions based on the Pinault Collection and personal
shows dedicated to major contemporary artists. It marks a double celebration in 2016: the 10th anniversary of the reopening of Palazzo Grassi by François Pinault
and the 30th anniversary of Sigmar Polke’s participation to the 1986 Venice
Biennale, when he was awarded the Golden Lion.
It seemed natural to establish a connection between the two events. Indeed, Sigmar Polke always showed his affection for the city of Venice and regularly took part in the Venice Biennale. Moreover, he holds a special place in the Pinault Collection, notably thanks to the monumental work Axial Age, which has been presented on several occasions at Punta della Dogana.
A major artistic figure of the past fifty years, Sigmar Polke introduced profound changes to the pictorial language of the 20th century. His eternal wish to experiment spread to images – he challenged their hierarchy and questioned the way they are created – as well as to the medium – he turned the medium into an actual component of the composition – and colours – he tracked down their formal and aesthetic potentials. The artist’s approach unfolds through his use of different mediums – painting and drawing, of course, but also photography, Xerox, film and installation – that intersect and are mutually enriched. It aims at the revitalisation of the subversive power of art by destabilising mechanisms of perception as much as by disrupting genres and categories.
For the 1986 Venice Biennale Sigmar Polke conceived an extraordinary installation for the German Pavilion generically entitled Athanor. Alchemy and politics were the two main themes that emerged from this body of work, which combined figurative or abstract paintings and installation art based on hygro-sensitive colours applied directly onto the walls, quartz and iron meteorite. These two themes form the fil rouge of the exhibition at Palazzo Grassi. Thereby, a mark of respect to the artist’s spirit, fundamentally impervious to any process of systematisation and pre-established rule, the retrospective regularly throws off these two axes by infringing the themes and the chronology.
The exhibition opens with Axial Age (2005-2007), a monumental set of seven paintings (including one triptych) initially exhibited in the central pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Now presented for the first time in the atrium of Palazzo Grassi, this fascinating masterpiece is a true artistic legacy from the artist and evokes the original entanglement between visible and invisible, the discrepancies between thoughts and perception, while referring to Karl Jaspers’s Axial Age theory.
The retrospective show then unfolds on the two floors of the museum, following a reverse chronological order from the late 2000s to the 1960s. The path is lined with exceptional bodies of work such as Strahlen Sehen (2007), a set of five paintings about vision and its pitfalls, Hermes Trismegistos (1995), a masterly evocation in four parts of the founder of alchemy, Magische Quadrate (1992), seven nacreous variations about magic squares and planets, Laterna Magica (1988-1992), composed of six panels painted on both sides like stained-glass windows, and Negativwerte (1982), three paintings in a dense and toxic purple. Through these works one can grasp the ambition of Sigmar Polke’s approach to the alchemy of colours and shapes developed from the 1980s on.
The artist was fond of experimenting with the pictorial matter, as one can see in the small works titled Farbprobe, a condensate of all possible mixtures of heterogeneous materials. He equally enjoyed playing with images, by manipulating them with a copy machine (Für den Dritten Stand bleiben nur noch die Krümel, 1997), by superimposing them following Picabia’s example (Alice im Wunderland, 1972), or by breaking them up through the magnifying of the photographic frame (Man füttert die Hühner, 2005). With Polke, the pleasure to play is always synonym with a sense of humour and casualness.
In counterpoint to his works tackling what lies beyond appearances where representation and abstraction merge, the artist remained true to the critical approach to society he developed early in his career and continued to create paintings with strong historical and political connotations. The exhibition includes some of his most representative works, such as Polizeischwein (1986) and Amerikanisch-Mexikanische Grenze (1984), which deal with the topics of police force and borders respectively and which were both presented at the 1986 Venice Biennale, but also Hochstand (1984), which evokes concentration camps, and Schiesskebab (1994), about fratricidal wars in ex-Yugoslavia… A few works on the French Revolution, such as Jeux d’enfants (1988) and Message de Marie-Antoinette à la Conciergerie (1989), also conjure up Sigmar Polke’s relationship with History.
The 1970s are represented by a beautiful selection of works that illustrate Polke’s iconoclastic frenzy during this particular decade – Cameleonardo da Willich (1979) – and the way he used caricatures and comic books, as well as his will to experiment all out with pictorial techniques – Untitled (1970-1971) – and chromatic blooming with metallic paint bomb – Indianer mit Adler (1975). Finally, the mushrooms in Alice im Wunderland (1972) evoke his use of all kinds of psychotropic substances…
Throwing light on the origin of this exceptional oeuvre, the exhibition ends with Polke’s artistic production from the 1960s. In Telepathische Sitzung II (William Blake – Sigmar Polke) (1968), one can already find evidence of the artist’s interest in paranormal phenomena, while his taste for the absurd and his connections to Fluxus are apparent, notably in Kartoffelhaus (1967/1990), a garden hut studded with potatoes. Moreover, painting is the artist’s focus in works with a photographic base in which he lays bare the mechanisms of the image – Interieur (1966), Vase II (1965) – and when he winks at the aesthetic of kitsch – Reiherbild I (1968) – or at the twitches of modernity – Bohnen (1965), Schrank (1963). Likewise, he tackles the issue of the material on which he paints by using printed fabric with decorative patterns that establish a dialogue with the painted subject, as in Das Palmen-Bild (1964) or Lampionblumen (1966)…
In addition to the exhibition, the Venice Films (1983-1986) as well as several series of photographs will be presented. A selection of Polke’s most significant films will be screened at the Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi in autumn.