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He was a mad uncle, a merry prankster in the mold of Ken Kesey.

On view at the Burda, the 1968 painting Modern Art attacks the iconic status afforded reductive, abstract gestures by staining such a canvas with a splotch mockingly splashed across the surface.

A collaborative essay that the artists composed for that earlier show was only translated on the occasion of the Christie’s book; other than that, I could find only a single interview with Polke dating back to 1984, with Bice Curiger, reprinted in a 1990 issue of Parkett. (I am a dot as well.)” This farcical nonsense captures Polke’s eccentricity and wackiness, but was offset by his later comment to Curiger: “Agony is lurking behind every hair, every color, every picture.” You get the feeling that even when tragedy struck (as it did indeed with Polke’s unfortunate, premature passing) the funny was an important resource and remedy—as much as defense.

Polke was taciturn to the extreme, repeatedly truant when journalists came calling, even when they were armed with appointments. Back in Baden-Baden, the Museum Frieder Burda show is a beautiful, discrete exhibition that dips into many different strands of Polke’s work—photography, painting, drawing, conceptual pieces incorporating masking tape (and rubber bands), and artifacts from his personal collection—modestly, with grace and cohesion.

To compare markets, Gerhard Richter, at 85 years of age this month (on February 9), has 16 more years (and counting) of prodigious production with no signs of slowing; Polke was 69 at the time of his death, June 10, 2010.

To date, Richter has sold 5,527 pieces at auction to Polke’s 3,004.

The Museum Frieder Burda was opened by the eponymous publisher in 2004 in a Richard Meier building in the German spa town of Baden-Baden (literally “Bath-Bath”) known for its natural springs and one of Europe’s very first casinos, dating to 1765 and in full swing, still.

I dropped by to visit the Sigmar Polke exhibition entitled “Alchemy and Arabesque,” but sadly didn’t stay quite long enough to pop into a hot spring—though I did manage a side trip to the lavish Rococo casino, admired by as diverse a clientele as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Marlene Dietrich…and Andreas Gursky.

I’ve long been involved with Polke and Richter since the first exhibit I curated, “German Paper” at Sandra Gering Gallery in New York in 1990, which covered a wide range of drawings and works on paper.

Most recently, I organized “polke/richter richter/polke” in 2014 in the private treaty gallery of Christie’s London.

Polke’s chemical wisps float through space, traces of what look like random, arbitrary drips and spills.

Neoclassical shards, fragments, and non-sequiturs in the way of hidden faces, demons, and ghosts swathed in hanging stains play a constant game of hide-and-seek.

The title of the Polke show is a little unfortunate; though the alchemy is ostensible, the arabesque is more like a kitchen-sink approach to capturing past, present, and future reflections/impressions in a boiling cauldron: Polke’s perfervid imagination.


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