PALAZZO GRASSI
 
Sigmar Polke
 
Text
Elena Geuna
Co-curator of the exhibition
 
Palazzo Grassi is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its reopening by organizing a retrospective dedicated to the work of Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), the first ever to take place in italy. This exhibition also marks the artist's seventy-fifth birthday, and the thirtieth anniversary of his participation in the 1986 Venice Biennial, when he was awarded the Golden Lion. The exhibition was organized for Palazzo Grassi by Elena Geuna and Guy Tosatto, director of the Museum of Grenoble, in collaboration with the estate of Sigmar Polke.
 
<br><br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Beginning in the early 1970s, Italy became a frequent travel destination for Polke, always a tireless traveler. His participation in several Biennials became opportunities to visit Venice on multiple occasions. The first was in 1980: he presented a series of works from the late 1960s, celebrated for their subtly ironic character. They included his <i>Kartoffelhaus </i>and <i>Telepathische Sitzun</i>g. In the first, potatoes, a dietary staple food symbolizing the economic hardships in the years following the Second World War, form the connections of a small house. In the second, Polke, fascinated by the occult and the paranormal, attempts to engage in a telepathic conversation with great artists of the past, establishing a short-circuit between the past and the present, reality and fiction. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>But it was with <i>Athanor</i>, his project representing West Germany at the forty-second Venice Biennial in 1986, that Polke struck a balance between his fascination with alchemy, his strong desire to experiment, and his compulsion to comment on contemporary events. During the year of the Chernobyl catastrophe, Polke began using unexpected materials, experimenting with the aggregate states of different elements, and taking advantage of the physical and chemical properties of ancient minerals, dyes, or pigments like orpiment and indigo. In this work, inspired by both his political agenda and his enthusiasm for “alchemical experimentation,” Polke would establish the vocabulary, techniques, and fundamental motifs of his future investigations. His retrospective at Palazzo Grassi, thirty years after he was awarded the Golden Lion, has been conceived as a homage to his extraordinary, visionary project. It aims to bring together works from his most important series, which each, in their own way, have a connection, a relationship, to Italy. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Polke would participate in two more Biennials during the 1990s, in 1993 and 1999, before returning in 2007, invited by curator Robert Storr. Presenting work in the central exhibition space of the Italian Pavilion for the first time on this occasion, Polke chose <i>Axial Age</i>, one of his series that best encapsulates his oeuvre and focuses the central themes of his work. For this new exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, the seven monumentally scaled canvases of<i> Axial Age</i> are presented in the atrium. Serving as an introduction to the show, these also announce its organization, which proceeds in reverse chronological order; they also evoke the privileged relationship between Polke and the city of Venice, where <i>Axial Age </i>was previously exhibited at Punta della Dogana in 2009 and 2013. Inspired by the different phases in the alchemical process, Polke transforms in this series the habitual mechanisms of sight, by experimenting with materials and taking advantage of the dialectic between the imposing physical stature of the work and its transparency. With this semi-translucent canvas, mounted on a visible frame, Polke celebrates the iridescence of surface. As the light changes, so does the color of the canvas, in purple shades of varying densities. The spatial composition, its horizontality, the recourse to ancient techniques, the enigmatic subjects located on an abstract ground, and the undefined shapes that emerge from the depths of the canvas provoke a range of reactions from the observer: a sense of detachment, a feeling of alienation from perceptive reality, instigated by the works’ magnetic appeal. The basic alchemical principle of <i>solve et coagula</i> (which suggests analyzing a substance into its component parts before synthesizing the desirable elements into a new substance) finds its visual equivalent here: Polke “dissolves” the conventional parameters of vision to bring us to the next state, to a spiritual dimension similar to that of the axial age (a pivotal age characterizing the period of ancient history during about the eighth to third centuries BC).<br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>This fascination for optical instruments and the critical analysis of the modalities of vision are also themes present in <i>Strahlen sehen</i>, 2007, a group of five works presented at the Venice Biennial in 2011. These “lenticular paintings” are the result of a special manufacturing process: Polke places a magnifying lens between the work and the viewer’s eye, which contorts sight and creates movement. Our perception of the image alters as we move around the work. The hard surface of the lens, handmade by the artist using acrylic gels, acts as a filter, forcing the visitor to actively interact with the work in order to grasp the totality of the image. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Sigmar Polke’s different passages in Venice punctuate the evolution of his extraordinary career. Dierk Stemmler, curator of the West German pavilion in the 1986 Biennial, described Polke at the time as a “transformer and a detective.” Thirty years later, this exhibition at Palazzo Grassi highlights the relevance and accuracy of this portrayal. <br><br>
 
 
Sigmar POLKE<br /><i>Jugendstil</i> — 2005 — Artificial resin, dry pigment, spray paint, acrylic on fabric — 300 × 480 cm
 
Sigmar POLKE<br /><i>Neo-Byzantium</i> — 2005 — Artificial resin, dry pigment, spray paint, acrylic on fabric — 300 × 480 cm
 
Sigmar POLKE<br /><i>Untitled</i> — 2005 — Artificial resin, dry pigment, spray paint, acrylic on fabric — 300 × 480 cm
 
Sigmar POLKE<br /><i>Urlicht</i> — 2007 — Artificial resin, dry pigment on fabric — 300 × 480 cm
 
Sigmar POLKE<br /><i>Determination of the position “here it is”</i> — 2007 — Artificial resin, dry pigment, spray paint, acrylic on fabric — 300 × 480 cm
 
Sigmar POLKE<br /><i>Forward</i> — 2007 — Artificial resin, dry pigment, spray paint, acrylic on fabric — 300 × 480 cm
 
Sigmar POLKE<br /><i>Deucalion’s Flood</i> — 2007 — Artificial resin, dry pigment on fabric — 480 × 300 cm
 

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