The Lexicon of Sigmar Polke

Ekow Eshun explores the deeper meaning of Sigmar Polke's work against the backdrop of post-war art and Modernism's embrace of African art.

Ekow Eshun explores the deeper meaning of Sigmar Polke's work against the backdrop of post-war art and Modernism's embrace of African art.

Sigmar Polke, Negerplastik, 1968. 20th Century & Contemporary Art. 


Written by Ekow Eshun


From its jarring title to its disparate constitutive elements, Sigmar Polke’s Negerplastik (1968), is a work of ambiguous meaning. The painting depicts an African figurine, its carved facial features half hidden in shadow. Behind it is a kitsch yellow backdrop patterned with woodland creatures such as bunnies, fawns and bear cubs wearing bows. To the right a strip of medical tape is marked with squiggled lines of paint. The painting gestures obliquely to notions of race and history; to the legacy of colonialism, perhaps. But what has brought Polke to this terrain? Why is he reaching towards Africa? What does he hope to find there? The prominence of the African sculpture in the picture brings to mind the “discovery” of African art by the European avant-garde in the early 20th century. The innovations and cultural borrowings sparked by Modernism’s engagement with Africa produced exhilarating works like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). But even as European artists thrilled at their encounter with l’art negre, their view of African culture itself remained rooted in colonial stereotypes of the dark continent. For Picasso, African masks and figures were “magic things” — objects richer in supernatural mystery than artistic virtue. As the scholar Patricia Leighten notes, the Modernists “embraced a deeply romanticized view of African culture (conflating many cultures into one) and considered Africa the embodiment of humankind in a precivilized state.”


Is Polke’s painting too a superficial appropriation of Africanness? And is it therefore of a piece in context with recent controversies about depictions of race in art? Open Casket (2016), the white artist Dana Shutz’s portrait of the murdered black teenager Emmet Till, drew vocal criticism when it went on show at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” wrote artist Hannah Black in response. Other artists, such as Kelley Walker, whose 2016 exhibition in St Louis featured civil rights era photographs of black people smeared with melted chocolate, have also drawn ire. Probably the closer analogy to the questions about race and representation that Negerplastik seems to raise lies with Phillip Guston’s paintings of cartoonish Ku Klux Klan figures, some of which date from the late 60s, like the Polke picture. Nervous at how the Klan images would be received by the public, a major Guston retrospective was postponed last year by the four museums planning the exhibition. But Guston did not approach his provocative subject glibly. The pictures draw their disquieting force from his frustration at the inability of abstract art to address the fraught social climate of the 1960s. Polke’s painting emerges from a similar impatience with the limitations of Modernism. Negerplastik takes its title from the book of the same name by German art critic Carl Einstein. Published in 1915, Negerplastik was the first academic work to treat African sculpture as art as opposed to ethnographic curio, laying the foundations for the study of the topic as a critical pursuit. But its shortcomings as a piece of scholarship are glaring. The text is written without corroborating footnotes or bibliography. Images of sculptures bear no identifying information on where, when or by whom they were made. And Einstein leaves unchallenged his era’s condescending view of Africans as “people of an eternal prehistory.”


There’s a chance Polke may have used Einstein’s title ironically. Born in Germany in 1941, the artist grew up witness to how Nazi ideology had perverted German society. The experience left him with a profound antipathy to seductive narratives of order or progress. Art, he felt, was a way to fight “against the madness of facts.” Polke might have seen in Negerplastik another attempt to impose restrictive order on a culture brimming with inventiveness. But there’s also another reading of the painting I want to entertain, in which Polke’s intention is to pay oblique homage to Einstein. In 1968, the same year he made Negerplastik, Polke also produced a number of paintings satirizing the aesthetic conventions of abstraction. Those works include his masterpiece Modern Art (1968), which turns the smears and swirls of Abstract Expressionism into decorative motifs. In the year of “revolution in the air,” Polke implies that Modernism has run its course. Its capacity to startle society into new ways of seeing has been reduced to empty stylistic gestures.


Sigmar Polke, Polke als Astronaut (Polke as Astronaut), 1968. Promised gift of a private collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / DACS 2021 Sigmar Polke 

The latter 1960s also saw Polke work on a set of paintings for which he substituted patterned fabric for canvas. Pictures like Beans (1965), Woman at the Mirror (1966) and Polke as Astronaut (1968) feature the type of cheap printed textiles found in domestic environments. Their use evokes the archetypal interior of petit bourgeois German homes. Perhaps here Polke was registering his contempt for the veil of propriety and denial that German society had drawn down over Nazi period in the era of post-war prosperity. Negerplastik’s backdrop of yellow fabric patterned with twee woodland creatures makes it kin to this series. But the careless lines of paint drizzled on top of the medical tape also relate it to Abstract Expressionist pastiches like Modern Art. In Negerplastik the impotence of Modernism becomes all the more shaming for being set against the failure of Germany to reckon with its wartime past.


As for Einstein, a follow-up book on African art provided the scholarly depth missing from Negerplastik and his reputation as a critic continued to grow through subsequent years. A communist sympathizer in the 1930s, his writing was animated by a fervent belief in the potential of art to help shape a better future. But with fascism’s rise in Europe, he became disenchanted by its inability to engage with society. “To make art today is basically a pretext for avoiding danger,” he wrote. In 1936, Einstein went to fight with the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. During World War II his communist beliefs made him a target of the Nazi regime. Trapped in occupied Southern France in 1940 and facing capture by German troops, he chose instead to take his own life by jumping from a bridge. Given the breadth of his erudition — his personal library contained tens of thousands of volumes — Polke may well have known about the later course of Einstein’s life. In which case, we can see in Negerplastik both as a caution against complacency in art and society and a testament to a figure whose final act was performed in resistance to the forces of oppression.


Ekow Eshun is Chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing the most prestigious public art programme in the UK, and the former Director of the ICA, London. He is the author of Africa State of Mind: Contemporary Photography Reimagines a Continent, nominated for the Lucie Photo Book Prize, and Black Gold of the Sun, nominated for the Orwell prize. His writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Financial Times and The Guardian. He is a Contributing Editor at Wallpaper magazine.




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