17 April 2014

Two East German Defectors Walk Into an Art Gallery...

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Interview between John Anthony Thwaites and Gerhard Richter, written by Sigmar Polke, October 1964

JAT:  Mr. Richter, you are the most talented of the German Pop painters; you went through all the hardships and the hostility that the movement encountered in its early days; and you now occupy a leading position in the movement. Perhaps you can tell us something about your work and your artistic development.

GR:  I have a lot of work, and I am well developed artistically, and also mentally and physically. I pull the expander front and back. And if you saw my new pictures, Mr. Thwaites, you would collapse!

JAT:  Why?

GR:  Because they’re so good! You’ve never seen such good pictures in your life. No one has ever seen such good pictures, and I can’t show them to anyone, because everyone would collapse. So in the first place I hung cloths over all the pictures, and then in due course I overpainted them all white.

JAT:  And now?

GR:  Now I don’t paint at all any more, because I don’t want to have the whole human race on my conscience.

JAT:  How many victims have your works accounted for?

GR:  I don’t know, exactly. The exact statistics do exist, of course – they run into the tens of thousands – but I can’t concern myself with trivia. It was more interesting earlier on, when the big death camps in Eastern Europe were using my pictures. The inmates used to drop dead at first sight. Those were still the simple pictures, too. Anyone who survived the first show was killed off by a slightly better picture.

JAT:  And your drawings?

GR:  I haven’t done a lot. Buchenwald and Dachau had two each, and Bergen-Belsen had one. Those were mostly used for torture purposes.

JAT:  The Russians are said to have five of your paintings and drawings. Is that so?

GR:  I don’t know how many.

JAT:  Stalin mounted his reign of terror with two pictures. After killing millions of Russians, it’s said that he caught an accidental glimpse of one of your pictures, just for a fraction of a second, and immediately dropped down dead. Is that so?

GR:  I don’t know. One of my best paintings is in the Soviet Union.

JAT:  So what happens next?

GR:  I don’t paint any more. I can’t, because I don’t want to spread terror, alarm and anxiety everywhere, and depopulate the earth. But now it’s come to the point where I only have to think my paintings out and tell someone about them, and the person rushes off in a state of panic, has a nervous breakdown, and becomes infertile. That is the worst effect. Though I can’t say so for sure, as yet, because – depending on who tells the story – I have already caused dumbness, hair loss (mainly in women) and paralysis of limbs.

JAT:  Is it true that you supply paintings to the U.S. Army?

GR:  I can’t tell you anything about that.

JAT:  Have you no scruples, or anything?

GR:  I am an artist.

JAT:  Do you believe in God?

GR:  Yes, I believe in myself. I am the greatest, I am the greatest of all!

JAT:  Thank you, Mr. Richter.

GR:  Not at all, Mr. Thwaites.
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Now being reminded (via stumbling-upon) of the bit above, which I'd completely forgotten about, having first encountered it in a book I owned some years ago.

I know that the concept of the “fatal/killing joke” (as in, “die laughing”) had been around long before the Monty Python skit based on the same premise, had been around for a long time – but deadly paintings? Gallows humor in a Cold War context of postwar Germany, as well as a cynical dismissal of the heroic notion of “art as a weapon.” Also, it hints at the pair’s own anxieties about pursuing the quaint and retrograde practice of making paintings at the dawn of the consumer age – the suspected pointlessness of creating singular, hand-crafted images amidst the deluge of mass-circulated imagery pouring forth by way of magazines, advertisements, movies and TV, etc.. “Cynical” in that one, perhaps, could only continue to paint or make art by shrugging off the suspicion that doing so meant pursuing an increasingly marginalized, devalued, insignificant endeavor.*

The cynicism and dark humor of the “interview” are most likely attributable to Polke. Jokes about the feebleness of art in the postmodern age were a constant trope in his work throughout the years. For instance, a painting produced by Polke some five years after the text above, in which the artists has a laugh at the “transcendental” conceits of the pure-abstraction school of painting...

...In which the purity of the composition is sullied (if not nullified) by the intrusion of text, text which roughly translates as, “Higher powers command: paint the upper right corner black!” (And in that font, no less.) And then there's this one from 1976, with its obvious reference to the Nazi-via-malappropraited-Nietzschean übermenschen theme, transplanted into a postwar setting...

...About which I always wondered if Polke didn't derive the idea from the title of Norman Mailer's famous essay about JFK's nomination at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Such was the character of Sigmar Polke’s anti-mannerisms – corrosive irony combined with a pomo pastiche sensibility that appeared to disregard all notions of “high” and “low,” thus allowing a maximal accommodation for the most garish of decorative kitsch. Add to this his seemingly arbitrary or slipshod methods in the craftsmanship department, his incessant flirtation with visual murkiness, if not outright “ugliness.” Problematic and abrasive enough for some audiences, one supposes, were it not all capped off with – of course – the artist’s recurrent visual allusions to the repressed demons of Germany’s recent past. “For him,” critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote of Polke, “Aesthetic decorum appears to be roughly as important in the present state of civilization as table manners during an air raid.” Unsurprisingly, hazy accusations of borderline “nihilism” have occasionally been made by some critics.**

At any rate, Sigmar Polke will most likely be the subject of some long-overdue inkage on these shores on account of the MoMA retrospective that's presently kicking off. High time, too. Polke received only a bit of letting attention in the U.S. previously – mostly back in the days of so-called “German Invasion” early phase of the 1980s NYC art boom. I believe at the time his work was touted as an acknowledged precursor to that of art-boom passing fancy David Salle. But ultimately Polke’s work proved a little “too German” – that is, too esoteric and impenetrable – for American eyes; because the attention fell away, soon enough. The spotlight would mostly go to Anselm Kiefer for the remainder of the decade, before critical consensus began to finally settle on Richter as the most important European artist of his generation.***

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*  Wasn’t there something along these lines serving as a theme in Wim Wenders’s 1991 film Until the End of the World – a character at some pointing morosely muttering about contemporary life being overrun by a “disease of images”? Difficult for me to recall the context, as it’s been about two decades since I saw the film.

**  In this respect, it could be argued that between Richter and Polke, the latter proved to be far more of an influence on younger artists in West Germany – particularly the “bad boy” Cologne coterie of Kippenberger, Oehlen, Büttner, etc.

***  In retrospect, it would seem that the American artworld craze for postwar German art mostly served to buttress the legitimacy of emerging NYC art trends. By which I mean: Polke as an establishing precedent for Salle; Georg Baselitz and A. R. Penck cast in the supporting roles for the neo-expressionism of Schnabel, Rothenberg, et al., and so on. Like some stealthily-chauvinistic booster campaign that whispers, "We've got credit in the Old World!."

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