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ART : Sigmar Polke's Layered Look : The photographs of the influential German are hard to pin down--as is the artist himself.

December 03, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"I was raised during the war, however, and the trauma of that upheaval dominated my childhood," continues Polke, whose father was an architect descended from artisans who produced decorative ironwork for Baroque churches. "We were very poor and my family lost everything during the war--our home and our identity. But I'm a believer in luck and think the social conditions you're born into provide the opportunity for you to prove your luck. And I suppose I've been lucky."

Polke's luck began with his escape from East Germany into West Germany in 1953. He was 12 years old at the time and simply rode the train from east to west, pretending to be asleep so he'd be left undisturbed. As to where he went or what he did on arriving in the West, all he'll offer about this period of his life is "I was alone."

It was then that Polke decided on a life as an artist. He began spending his free time in galleries and museums and landed a job working as an apprentice in a stained-glass factory, where he worked until 1961, when he was accepted at the Duesseldorf Art Academy.

"I wasn't a student of Joseph Beuys but he was a strong presence at the academy when I was there," recalls Polke. "Beuys broke up the old structure of teaching and brought new life into German art, so it was an interesting time to be there."

In 1968, the year after he left the art academy, Polke published a portfolio of 14 photographs of small sculptures he'd made from odds and ends--buttons, balloons, a glove. Essentially a self-taught photographer, Polke spent the next three years painting, experimenting with filmmaking and performance art, and fiddling around with film and developing chemicals in an attempt to find out how far they could be pushed.

From 1968 to '71, he completed several films and took thousands of photographs, most of which he couldn't afford to print. Now, of course, Polke has plenty of money, but the getting of it hasn't had a noticeable effect on his art. "Money does makes life easier though," he says. "I no longer have to travel by foot and can now go by train or magic carpet."

In 1971 Polke's life changed in a way that would have a major impact on his art-making. Married at the time and the father of two children, he fell in love with another woman and began what would end up being a decade on the road. "My life changed because I fell in love--too much naked woman," laughs Polke, who presently lives in Cologne. "Because I was traveling a lot during the '70s, the only thing I could do on the road was take photographs, so there wasn't much painting during those years."

Polke's first stop was Paris, where he shot a sequential narrative revolving around a trip to the Louvre, then developed and printed the pictures while on LSD. (During this period Polke investigated the potential of various mind-altering substances as a tool for art-making, and made several images of magic mushrooms.)

In 1973 he visited the U.S. with artist James Lee Byars in search of the "other" America; the fruit of that journey was a series of manipulated images of homeless alcoholics living on New York's Bowery. Subsequent series include studies of a staged fight between a bear and a dog in Afghanistan, a gay bar in Sa~o Paulo, Brazil, and an opium den in Pakistan.

Though Polke would no doubt cringe at the comparison, his quest for extremes of experience puts one in mind of British visionary William Blake, Blake's friend the Swiss Romantic Henry Fuseli, French Symbolist Odilon Redon, and Viennese Secessionists like Gustav Klimt. As is true of Polke, all these artists were preoccupied with themes of mysticism, magic and eros (and, curiously, all had careers that spanned the changing of a century, as will Polke's).

The exotic heat that comes off of Polke's photographs is attributable both to their subject matter and to the fact that he ventured into some dicey situations in order to make them. "There has to be an element of risk-taking for me in my work," he confirms, then adds, "however, I no longer drink, smoke or take drug. I stopped because I felt I'd had enough, but I learned a great deal from drugs--the most important thing being that the conventional definition of reality, and the idea of 'normal life,' mean nothing. Nor is there life after death--these are the facts we must deal with."

Polke may no longer ingest intoxicants, but will admit to an ongoing interest in alchemy. "It's not something you can study in any kind of official way, rather, it's something you come to understand through experience," says the artist, who's presently reading a book on African sorcery titled "Double Face." "Many psychological theories attempt to explain it--Jung, for instance, thought about it a good deal. Elements of science and chemistry are also at play in alchemy, and theology and philosophy as well. I've never been interested in philosophy, but some of Jung's ideas seem useful in helping people understand pictures and so forth."

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