Sigmar Polke and Bruce Nauman represent two of the most respected names in recent contemporary art. Polke has passed away, and Nauman is nearly eighty, but their reputation and influence are very much alive and well. In this show of 16 works, Polke, a German artist of extraordinary gifts, is evident as both a highly original draftsman given to abstractions that look entirely new (and free of American influence) and an artist of genuine comic talent. In comparison, Nauman, a troubled and difficult visionary, is present with tortured word paintings that seem as unsettling, both privately and publicly, as they were when they were made. The drawings come from the Froelich Collection--Josef and Anna Froelich are collectors based in Stuttgart who have been building up visual anthologies of a small group of German and American artists. Their perception of contemporary art is exceptional, as this small show demonstrates.
Drawings are a special category in the world of contemporary art. Unlike paintings, there is something more ephemeral about their class as a medium. But it is also true that drawing has risen in estimate, as a genre in its own right--consider the great piece Summation, made by Gorky in 1947, proving that a work on paper is just as capable of inspiration and extraordinary accomplishment as painting. Polke’s drawings, often capitalizing on humor and whimsy, do seem distant from the American egotistical sublime. Maybe his cartoon humor, evident in one or two of the works in this show, is a way of distancing himself from the social circumstances surrounding him, even in so advanced a social democracy as Germany’s. As a practitioner, early in his career, of what historians call Capitalist Realism, Polke conveys an unwillingness to commit to any particular ideology beyond that of the moment’s experience. While Polke’s work can hardly be said to occupy a particular ideological ground, at the same time, his work refuses categorization--one way of being free! His abstract works are beautiful but perhaps a bit difficult for Americans to read clearly, being spontaneous without yielding to extensive expressionist tendencies.
Nauman is another case. Deliberately abrasive without specifying the conflict behind his aggression, the artist sometimes does not escape the unattractive position of whingeing too much. At the same time, he is offering an (indirect) critique of American culture, albeit one that refuses to criticize in a specifically political sense. So it is hard to tell if the trouble in his drawings is private or public--maybe it is a combination of both. Using single words and simple phrases allows the artist to concentrate on supposedly primal meanings, although this can be argued about, primarily because the lack of complexity stands as an obstacle to a stated belief. It would be wrong to assign specific social intelligence to the drawings in the show, although it is clear that Nauman is conveying an anxiety bordering on the pathological. Still, we don’t know exactly what he means, although we do know that something is lurking behind the facade he presents us with. It may be that the ambience of his work, in the sculptures as well as the drawings, must be taken at face value, that is, as a statement of severe alienation, even despair. But we don’t know if Nauman’s dysphoria is based on personal feeling or is a jeremiad occasioned by politics in America.
In the show at Eykyn Maclean’s small space, we confront the efforts of two powerful artists who do not easily fit into art-world hierarchies, even if their estimation is extraordinarily high. Both men reject formalism in favor of something looser, more closely aligned with investigations of social context (it is true, though, that several examples of Polke’s excellent abstract work are available in this show). An exhibition like this sparks the consideration of the term “major artist.” Can such an assignation be made while the artist is still alive or recently deceased? It is a problem of contemporary art historians--inevitably, a contradiction in terms. We need time to evaluate an artist’s accomplishment, and the current emphasis on an immediate judgment of the quality of current work may be interesting as journalism but cannot support a scholarly perspective in keeping with precedent efforts. Although it is pretty clear that both Polke and Nauman stand large in our time, it is also true that interpreters in the future may well look askance at our penchant for reading a visible career as a standard of greatness: the two reckonings are very, very different. What we can do is establish some sort of solid ground, in which the artist may be appraised as accurately as possible, that is, within the inevitable prejudicial constraints that accompany all periods, historical or modern.
Polke’s 1966 black-and-white drawing, called Geist (Ghost), depicts a very simply drawn spirit, with black eyes and a distinctly down-turned mouth. A large, extended, question mark-like line curves on top of the transparent figure, while a gray, a black, and a dark gray circle surround the bottom end of the figure. Beneath the three circles is another circle, created by dots. The word “Geist” appears at the bottom. On one level, this work appears as an illustration--a simple, even silly, drawing whose whimsical presentation is charming. But there is another meaning in German for “geist”--it denotes the spirit, as occurs in the work “Zeitgeist,” meaning the “spirit of the time.” It is unwise to over-interpret, even if we are dealing with a German artist, whose culture is noted for its laborious symbolism. In a way Polke is evading the weighted drama of his heritage in favor of something lighter, more fanciful. But, even so, the association between something like our cartoon figure Caspar the Friendly Ghost and the elevated spirituality of German abstraction cannot be erased.
The remarkable, colorfully complex work, named "Ohne Titel (Herz) (Untitled [Heart])" (1969), shows Polke at his best. The heart is drawn as a simple gray outline on the upper right, while the center of the composition is given to two heads--in the exact middle there is a female head with a closed left eye wearing lipstick; she is being kissed by a man whose head is rendered in gray, with a blue line defining the top of his head. His left eye is closed, too. Surrounding the two heads embracing is all manner of stylistic effects: mostly black rectangles and splotches ride the red hair of the woman in the upper left of the drawing, while on the lower left, there is a messy mosaic of red triangles and black polygonal forms. On the right, on the lower part of the composition, we see a black shape that fills the corner, while above it there is a thin lattice-like form. The visuals for this very beautiful work of art are complex, but they take a back seat to the emotion portrayed by the man and woman whose heads enfold each other. Given the title of the work, and the transparency of the imagery, Polke’s audience can only take the drawing as lyric poem, whose emotion is as clear as it is powerfully delivered.
American Violence (1983), a drawing by Nauman, literalize's a pervasive and persistent social problem in American culture. The two-word title is rendered in capitals in black against a white latticework pattern. Nothing could be more baldly stated than this visually elegant treatment of endemic violence in our culture. But the phrase is not so much an illustration of our situation as it is a literary description of it. There is no visual transformation whatsoever--only the fact of the words, elegantly traced on paper. It can be argued that this is problematic in a deep sense--Nauman can be criticized for refusing to transform his materials. At the same time, by removing nearly all visual interest from his theme, Nauman places attention where it likely should be: on the stark, unimaginable deaths of Americans maimed or murdered by our culture’s free-floating aggression. His treatment, being as transparent as it is, refuses to embellish the intractable tragedy of our problems. Still, even so, one is hesitant to commit to so simplistic a reading of social mores. Can violence be illustrated in a way that focuses our attention on the terrible aftermath of its event? It is hard to say. But reifying the problem in words rather than images conceptualizes a condition through language rather than images. That is not what artists usually do. In the end, then, our reading of the work is divided between our impression of the problem on an intellectual level and our need for a visual version of the circumstances. If Nauman gains notionally by working this way, he also rejects the medium he is known for.
Another word drawing by Nauman, Make Me Think Me (1993), is again an example of extreme reductivism in an intellectual sense, not to mention a visual one. The words can be read in several ways--as a single phrase exhorting the viewer to help Nauman consider who he is; or as a two-part injunction whose denotative meaning is not truly clear. Nauman’s commands need to be considered linguistically; they don’t always make sense as they are. But what is certain is the unease and casually expressed trouble suggested by the words. Although Nauman is not politically extravagant in any way in his work, he can be seen as delivering a critique of our imperial metaphysics. Whatever the phrase means--and it must be said that the first half of this work’s title carries an erotic weight, followed by a directive that is intellectualized but equally pressing--Nauman looks like he is giving orders to an audience that doesn’t grasp his concerns. His generation is starting to pass, so this critical perception we regularly experience in his art is starting to look outdated--even if the perceptions are not! Today our politics are narrowly expressed, within the confines of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion. Nauman is committing himself to something else, though: a protracted critique of our thinking. The two word drawings discussed here rely on his social insights for their power as art.
It is important in looking at this show not to succumb an overly simplistic interpretation, on a social or formal level. Polke is a hugely gifted visual artist whose commentary is light-handed but not lightweight. Nauman is different, being a cultural critic whose armamentarium consists of words as well as images. Polke relays
indirect visions of contemporary life in ways that participate in that life, even as he suggests, through whimsy, a different recognition of social possibilities. At the same time, he commands a very gifted hand in his creation of abstraction, also whimsical to some extent. Nauman’s art presupposes an ambience of dismay, although this is never expressed directly. His use of words conceptualizes his art to a high degree, but it also removes it from the usual function of visual expression. This means that Nauman is highly dependent on written explanation of his intentions and forms, so that the work is forced into academic justification. Not so with Polke--he is an artist who can more easily be appreciated without being annotated by a critic or a scholar. It is unwise to make comparisons between the two, who come from very different cultures and whose sensibilities are more than far apart. But the gallery’s decision to pair these highly talented artists has resulted in a show of considerable esthetic and intellectual intelligence--a combination of high jinks and meaningful ideas.
(All images courtesy of Eykyn Maclean Gallery, New York)