May 23, 2009

Sigmar Polke sees the light

In Time Out New York Howard Halle reports that Sigmar Polke's "Lens Paintings" are further testament, if any is needed, to the power of an artist's "late" style." This is the first show of new works in New York by Polke in 11 years, and in it, the German artist seems to gaze retrospectively at his career through the metaphor of the lenticular process—most commonly associated with those postcards that flicker back and forth between two images. Though they don't create the same kind of illusion, the canvases here are faced with a ribbed material that ranges in opacity from transparent to translucent to opaque. But behind and on top of this surface treatment, you can see Polke reprising motifs that cover his 40-plus years of production. There are snatches of the cartoony figuration and blown-up benday dots that characterized his earliest efforts from the '60s, when he and Gerhard Richter embarked on the critique of American Pop Art they labeled Capitalist Realism. The kooky found fabrics and gestural passages that made their way into his oeuvre at the end of that decade and into the '70s are also here, as are the blown-up old-timey bookplate engravings that Polke began to appropriate in the 1980s. The last are probably the most relevant to the new paintings, since they evince the love of vintage books that led Polke to his inspiration: a treatise on optics by a 17th-century monk named Johann Zahn.

"Zahn was a key figure in the development of the camera obscura, the device which presaged photography, and in his text he describes a "teledioptric artificial eye"—what we'd call a telephoto lens—while noting that every luminous object in the universe varies in appearance depending on the viewer's position. A dry observation to be sure, but one that ran contrary the certainties of Renaissance perspective that defined painting in Zahn's time. And indeed, the science of lens grinding, which began in the 1600s, was one of the developments that would eventually lead to the modernist revolution. But more compelling to Polke, perhaps, was Zahn's implication that perception was necessarily democratic, dependent on the individual's point of view. This notion comports with what Polke learned as a student of Joseph Beuys, a big believer in the idea of art as a populist arena....

"It's no coincidence, then, that the fragmentary images that Polke employs appear to make references to prestidigitation, magic lantern shows and spirit photography. More to the point, however, he hints at the threshold where vision meets the divine. More than just taking a trip down memory lane with these "Lens Paintings," Polke is looking back over a career and seeing the light."



"Sigmar Polke: The Lens Paintings," Michael Werner, New York, NY. Through June 19.

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