To interview German artist Sigmar Polke is to know how Margaret Dumont must've felt trying to get a straight answer out of the Marx Brothers. Granted, it's kind of fun having Polke run circles around you as he deftly deflects every question you lob his way, but it's hard to respect yourself later when you realize that he got through the interview without revealing much about himself. He's an elusive character, but he's so bloody charming it's easy to overlook that fact.
Regarded as one of the most significant creative forces to emerge from post-World War II Europe, the 54-year-old artist will be seen in depth in Los Angeles for the first time in "When Pictures Vanish," a comprehensive survey of his photographic work of the past 28 years that opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art. An influence on several artists who came to prominence in the '80s--David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Richard Prince and Annette Messager to name a few--Polke is primarily known for densely layered paintings that combine unorthodox materials and methodologies. He often paints on printed fabric rather than canvas, for instance, and for the 1986 Venice Biennale created "Athanor," a massive installation comprising murals coated with chemicals that responded to light and humidity, resulting in an image in constant flux.
Above all else, Polke is a free-wheeling iconoclast who refuses to be pinned down to any style or school. Coming of age as an artist in Duesseldorf during the '60s, Polke was a colleague of Germany's genre-bending titan Joseph Beuys, who taught at the Duesseldorf Art Academy from 1961 to '71; like Beuys, Polke doesn't just steadfastly reject conventional approaches and beliefs about art-making--he barely seems to notice such conventions exist.
His relationship with his photographs illustrates this point neatly. The MOCA galleries are hung with 120 one-of-a-kind prints (Polke tends to work in series but doesn't do editions), most of which are on loan from collections of major museums around the world. The works tend to be extraordinarily large for photographs, and many were made using unstable materials that render the images quite fragile. Nonetheless, Polke says he has no problem with the idea of knocking any one of them out of its expensive frame and re-invading the image.
"A negative is never finished," says Polke, who views the darkroom as a stage where he performs, subjecting his negatives to all manner of abuse that includes folding the prints as they're developing, treating them with radioactive substances, and drawing and painting on them.
Nor does he care what happens to the work after he's dead and gone, or if it earns him a place in the history books. He seems to be unusually comfortable with the notion of impermanence and is quick to point out that at any given moment there are many different realities unfolding simultaneously. These attitudes--which are reflected in a creative methodology rooted in processes of layering and distortion--make sense when one begins to piece together the story of his life.
Not that Polke will tell you much about himself or his work. Strolling through the MOCA galleries with curator Paul Schimmel, who assembled this show, we run into Polke and his companion, Augustina von Nagel. Introductions are made, then Polke gestures at my sheaf of notes and inquires, "What's that for?" When I reply that I'm going to interview him, a mischievous smile flickers across his face that seems to say, "That's what you think." He then abruptly positions me in front of the reflective surface of a large, dark photograph, snaps a picture of our reflections in the glass, and we're off.
Polke begins the conversation with the observation that since I'm chewing gum perhaps he should chew a piece too, so we'll understand each other better. I accommodate his request, then ask a question about French Modernist Francis Picabia, an artist he's often compared to, and whom he once described as "the last European artist."
"Picabia is a very old painter who some people try to connect me to, but I refuse such comparisons very well," he replies. "But what has this to do with anything? We can't begin with Picabia falling out of the sky into the middle of our conversation!"
Having been warned against probing into Polke's personal life, I'd planned to start with innocuous art history questions then move on to the thornier stuff, but it dawns on me that he doesn't plan to tell me anything no matter what approach I take. In that case, I figure we might as well plunge into the biographical questions.
Born in Silesia, Germany, in 1941, the seventh in a family of eight children, Polke says, "I began drawing as a very young child and had a grandfather who experimented with photography, so those things constituted my first exposure to art.