Eight Art Project
Eight Art Project

Sigmar Polke at Palazzo Grassi.

To celebrate the ten years that have passed since its reopening, Palazzo Grassi is devoting an ample retrospective to Sigmar Polke (1941-2010). The exhibition explores the German artist’s link with Venice and pays tribute to all the phases in his career. A man incapable of sticking to schemes, allergic to any kind of label and determined to keep on experimenting, Polke can be regarded as one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century for the influence he had on a certain practice of painting, one that was intense and stimulating but also filled with learned and arcane references. The exhibition, curated by Elena Geuna and Guy Tosatto, is made up largely of beautiful pieces from the collection of François Pinault. With over ninety works, it reconstructs the career of the German artist, starting with the series of paintings dating from the first decade of the new century and moving back in time until it reaches the earliest ones of the 1960s.

The exhibition turns around two of the crucial moments in Sigmar Polke’s production of paintings, Athanor (1986) and Axial Age (2005-07), which the curators present to the public as the ideal extremes of a circular course that begins and ends in Venice. In the 1980s, in fact, the spaces of the Biennale had been the first to celebrate the erudition and taste for the “marvelous” hidden behind the alchemical energies evoked by Athanor. In the Lagoon we seem to find today the same magical balance of pigments and materials as in the Axial Age series of paintings that greets visitors at the entrance. The cycle of pictures that won him the Golden Lion in 1986 takes its name from the furnace traditionally used for alchemical transmutation. Polke re-created the fascination of the metamorphosis involved in that process, using a kind of paint that reacts to humidity and light by changing color to produce images that speak of political events which remain relevant today. Axial Age, on the other hand, refers to the pivotal period that the philosopher Karl Jaspers pointed to as a time of profound intellectual vitality, something which Polke set out to evoke through a variety of expressive codes.

While he was a splendid painter, it is difficult to tell what means of expression he preferred. Along with a mixture of themes and tones, what makes his approach to art so singular is in fact a complete indifference to techniques: everything that allowed him to combine citations of highbrow and popular culture, the history of art and politics or, again, mystical and mathematical principles and the language of entertainment, became a fascinating aesthetic challenge.
The passion for alchemy, in this sense, manifests itself in almost all his works as a metaphor for art tout court: in continual evolution, but at the same time linked to the present. In works like Hermes Trismegistos I-IV (1995), for example, Polke takes his materials to levels of extreme sophistication to pay homage to the archetypal alchemist and put the elements to a test in a pictorial key that is at once ancient and modern.
Purple is the color par excellence, chosen for its acid tones to represent the hallucinogenic temptations contained in Alice im Wunderland (Alice in Wonderland, 1972), the fruit of spray paint and drugs. As well as precious minerals like lapis lazuli and malachite or poisonous ones like realgar, showing Polke was a painter with his roots in the Renaissance rather than in the contemporary world, able to orchestrate the elements with the skill of an ancient master.

Kartoffelhaus (Potato House, 1967-1990) is undoubtedly the clearest expression of Polke’s taste for the absurd, but also—in confirmation of the fact that he belonged to a generation whose adherence to the ideas of Arte Povera reflected a rejection of certain social dynamics—for the recovery of original and concrete horizons, such as the ones linked to the earth and to shelter.
The echo of the American voices that announced the advent of Pop Art in noisy and irreverent tones in the 1960s can in fact be perceived in his work too, but without influencing it profoundly. Comic strips, newspapers and popular prints re-proposed in a raster-painting version do not constitute a blind adherence to consumer society, but an ironic account of that same reality.

Elena Tettamanti

Venice // until November 11, 2016
Sigmar Polke
Curated by Elena Geuna and Guy Tosatto
François Pinault Collection, Palazzo Grassi, Venice
San Samuele 3231, Venice


Photo credits:
1. Sigmar Polke
Zirkusfiguren, 2005
Pinault Collection
Ph: Matteo De Fina
© The Estate of Sigmar Polke by SIAE 2016

2. Sigmar Polke
Axial Age, 2005-2007
Pinault Collection
Installation view in the exhibition “Mapping The Studio” at Punta della Dogana, 2009-2011
© Palazzo Grassi, ph: ORCH orsenigo_chemollo
© The Estate of Sigmar Polke by SIAE 2016

3. Sigmar Polke
Alice im Wunderland, 1972
Private collection
Ph: Wolfgang Morell
© The Estate of Sigmar Polke by SIAE 2016

4. Sigmar Polke
Gugu ung Georg, 1983
Pinault Collection
© The Estate of Sigmar Polke by SIAE 2016

June 2016
Elena Tettamanti