13 March 2009 – 17. January 2010
Gallery of Contemporary Art
The political concerns and commitment of Sigmar Polke and his artist friends are the focus of Politics, the third part of the exhibition Sigmar Polke. Wir Kleinbürger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen (We petty bourgeois! Contemporaries). Politics concludes this unconventional exhibition project, which was named “Exhibition of the Year” by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) in late September. In three consecutive and complementary presentations, all based around Polke’s little-known Kleinbürger series (1972–1976), the Hamburger Kunsthalle is exploring the diverse artistic strategies that were employed by Polke and his colleagues in the 1970s and have previously received little consideration.
The experimental scope of this productive decade is revealed in photographs, films, slide projections, drawings and paintings, supplemented by documentary material and source images. In more than a hundred individual works and series from international museums and private collections, ways of escaping from bourgeois society and values – whether on a small or a large scale – are investigated, while old and new social utopias are put up for discussion. Politics examines historical criticism of the economic, political and media-related conditions of art and society. The third and final part of the exhibition seeks to determine where the line was drawn between art and life in the 1970s, a decade in which utopian ideals tipped over into violent action. It highlights the pivotal and pioneering role played by Sigmar Polke as a figurative painter and examines his influence upon the subversive activities of subsequent generations of artists.
The centrepiece of the exhibition remains Polke’s Kleinbürger series – ten large-format works on paper that mark a turning point in his oeuvre: whereas in the Rasterbilder (raster paintings) and Capitalist Realism of the 1960s Polke offers ironic visual commentaries on the reality of life at the time of the ‘economic miracle’, here he begins to challenge social norms. The Kleinbürger ensemble provides a panoramic view of a period marked by hippie culture, proto-punk, the women’s movement and terrorism, giving visual expression to the hope for alternative ways of living. A second major series from the 1970s entitled Original + Fälschung (Original + Forgery) is also being shown, giving visitors the opportunity to view these two major bodies of work in juxtaposition. Original + Fälschung was first exhibited in 1973; for the current presentation, the original installation – involving hundreds of mirrors and coloured neon tubes – has been carefully reconstructed.
As could already be seen in the two previous parts of the exhibition – Clique, which was devoted to the theme of artistic exchange within West German and international subcultures, and Pop, which focussed on the complex strategies of appropriating, copying, sampling and reinterpreting images from popular media – Polke and his colleagues created post-Pop art by combining pop cultural elements with underground currents and political activism. His method of enlarging source images with the aid of stencils and spray-painting them onto a picture support is one such reference to expressions of political protest. But Sigmar Polke’s art is by no means limited to standard canvas formats and museum-based forms of presentation. The more transitory aspect of his aesthetic practice is reflected in ‘actions’ such as the circus-like gala Salto arte, organized in support of the radically left-wing – and temporarily banned – Belgian journal POUR (écrire la liberté). These, along with many works on show by the likes of Katharina Sieverding, Klaus Mettig, Astrid Heibach and Achim Duchow, reveal the artists’ interest in exploring and pursuing performative methods beyond the boundaries of art institutions and bourgeois norms.
Artists’ books in a scripted form, works painted on a background of tabloid newspapers, political emblems of the GDR or of trade unions, and large-format paintings bearing portraits of RAF terrorists satirize historical images and expose the symbolism of the political establishment in both East and West Germany. In his collaboration with Klaus Staeck for the 1972 federal election campaign or his photographs of beggars in New York and Cologne, Sigmar Polke alludes to specific political events and social realities. He and his friends employed the sharply provocative imagery of international satirical journals, made gender clichés collide in works produced at the time of the second women’s movement, and investigated alternative forms of sexuality. Particularly striking is how the artists combined unambiguously politicized images – such as documentary photographs or election posters – with psychedelic strategies. This enabled them to survey the contemporary environment in West Germany with critical and ironic distance and to expose authoritarian ideologies as an embarrassment.
Published to coincide with the exhibition, a comprehensive new catalogue by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König examines the background against which Wir Kleinbürger – Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen was created and situates the series in a broader context.
Curators of the exhibition:
Dr. Dorothee Böhm and Prof. Dr. Dietmar Rübel; at the Hamburger Kunsthalle: Dr. Petra Roettig
Supported by the Michael & Susanne Liebelt Stiftung
Pictures of the Exhibition: © 2009 Olaf Pascheit
Exhibition of the year 2009. Award of the international
Artcritics Association AICA (german section).