The current show of Sigmar Polke’s work at MOMA, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, is staggeringly expansive. With 260 works of art filling 10 galleries plus the atrium, the curators wisely moved most of the accompanying text into a 30 page handout on newsprint. Headspinnigly complex, the feeling of being overwhelmed is unavoidable.
Sebastian Smee took a stab at it in his recent review in the Boston Globe:
What kind of artist was Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)? The question affords no easy answer.
Besides being the most protean major artist of the past three or four decades, this German face-puller, tongue-poker, and cackling boogeyman was the kind of artist willing to spend weeks and months extracting purple pigment from the glands of snails (following ancient, imperial precedent) only to apply the precious substance to silk with a kind of desultory shoulder shrug.
He was the kind of artist who was happy to spend vast chunks of his life hand-painting raster dots — the pixel grids that make up imagery on television screens and printed matter — or pointing a video camera at whatever took his fancy…Replete with paintings, drawings, and prints on every scale and in every conceivable medium (and in some media, like “meteoric granulate,” “iron mica,” and “thermal enamel,” you probably never conceived of), as well as videos, photographs, photocopies, sculptures, and stained glass, [the exhibit] arrives four years after the artist’s death, at the age of 69.
Polke followed every thread and tried on every art trope. He is probably the most untethered and rule busting artist I know. The energy of his exploration is playful, but it is accompanied with a cold eye to the darker side of human nature and the world we have created. Polke “poured scorn on the idea of genuflecting before great art,” writes Smee. “An incessant, impulsive creator, he ridiculed our habit of revering artists or entering art galleries with earnest intent.”
The expansiveness and outward thrust of this extraordinary body of work is in high contrast to another artist I was reading about while I was in New York: Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). One of the most intimate of 20th century artists, Morandi’s oeuvre focuses almost exclusively on a very discrete number of objects that he rearranges repeatedly. He lived most of his life in Bologna with his mother and his sisters, teaching etching to make his way. He was introverted and private but not so isolated that he did not know about his contemporaries in Europe and the U.S. (He was interested in works by Rothko and Pollock.) He once said, “nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, that what we actually see. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, just the meanings we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.”
His approach is as far from Polke’s as you could possibly get. Where Polke is epic and expansive, Morandi is concentrated, quiet, personal and intimate. Polke experimented with every medium and form he could get his hands on, and Morandi stayed with his fascination for the arrangement of form and light in a simple still life. Polke’s humor and sardonic statements about art and the world require a willed detachment from the whole enterprise of art making. Morandi seeks a oneness with his vessels, working that connection over and over again. Yet both artists achieve an extraordinary expressiveness and are unforgettably forceful in their use of visual language.
My revisit with Morandi came through an essay about his work in the poet W. S. De Piero‘s collection of essays, When Can I See You Again? De Piero has long been one of my favorite poets who write about art (For other posts about him on Slow Muse, a list of links is below) and his description of Morandi’s work pulled me back into that world with just one read.
Here are a few passages that capture so much of what I love about Morandi’s work:
He uses the material world to disclose the inner life, to get us to see into the secret lives of things and the instabilities of matter. The work scrutinizes in a visionary way the immaterial in the material. The pictures are extreme acts of attentiveness and can induce the kind of mania Ortega described when he wrote that a maniac (or lover) is somebody with an abnormal attention span.
The paint can be alluvial, buttery, torpid or dashed, thinly whisked, nearly transparent. For years he ground his own pigment and returned all his life to variations on the a familiar range of tones, the sanded-down oranges, blushed umbers, and smoky maroons of Bologna’s walls.
The modern sublime isn’t about magnitude or clarion ambition: it rubs perception so close to ordinary facts of physical reality that we feel pressed against a membrane that obscurely separates us from whatever lies on the other side, if there is another side. It intensifies and restores physical reality while suggesting something larger than consciousness. The frontal sensuous forms on a Morandi canvas induce an exhilarating anxiety about what’ unnameable and invisible but felt along the nerves.
Morandi was the least performance-conscious of the great moderns. The only audience other than himself was the space between his eye and the canvas. And no modern more-or-less figurative artist so resists or shrugs off the use of words…Surrealism, Cubism, and Futurism make magpies of us, but his works don’t offer themselves up to words any more than Wallace Stevens’s poems offer themselves to illustration.
Morandi’s chamber music of color harmonies, the degrees and directions of brushiness, the vibratory frequencies in and around objects—they don’t invite admiration, through they can charm us into casual awe. Modestly sumptuous to the eye, his art is tensely interiorized, it possess a reserve that puts us at a remove where we can observe the working relationship between the painter’s transformative eye and his silent sitters.
He’s preoccupied not with liquidity and consistency but with what’s aspirated. He makes us see the ghost of a thing in a thing, as if he’s painting dark matter’s hues, a thing’s negative existence.
Morandi’s art has everything to do with teasing out problems specific to the art, but one of its essential, sustaining pleasures is its comprehensive candor of presence (the studio paraphernalia expand and contract in a complex choreography of architectural or structural possibilities) blended with a humility that’s not reticence at all but something might and self-contained.
Look long enough and the reappearing paraffin lamps, shells, Tin Man hats and the rest begin to feel like company. They were his company certainly, and they feel like they’re keeping us (and themselves) company…Their presence says: Recognize us, know us in order to know yourself.
Other posts about De Piero: