This modest survey of German painter Sigmar Polke’s photography includes portraits of several Afghan men leaning on a Jeep next to a mud-brick wall; a picture of a teapot pouring crumpled paper into a cup; a picture of Polke’s studio furniture arranged in a sculptural installation; and pictures of Polke’s own collages “Polke’s Whip” and “Menschenkreis.” There is also a constellation of 16 photos made up of 11 views, including variations and double exposures, of Polke’s one-time lover Marietta Anton in a park, smiling and speaking through a veil of twigs; a photograph of an overturned iron bathtub; and two views of a naked couple on a blanket in the grass. There’s a whole series of prints painted and drawn over; eight still lifes of the shadowy adventures of a cucumber; and a grid of nine crackling, dramatic, Blossfeldt-meets-Becher nature studies. Apart from all this, there are the 64 prints and 14 lithographs marching in an unbroken line around the walls of a second branch of Leo Koenig Gallery, next door.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but that’s as it should be: Polke was as prolific in quality as he was in quantity. As Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art curator Paul Schimmel noted, Polke, who died last year, used his camera like a sketchbook; and he treated his photos like paintings, experimenting with, altering or deliberately bungling the development process to create unusual visual effects. Most of his prints are creased and stained. Everything seems unfinished—not in the sense of lacking anything, but in the sense of still being in play. The act of looking takes on a performative weight equal to the weight of the final form. And the viewer too is an equal—you feel less like a critic entering after the fact than like a friend making a studio visit. When you look at Marietta smiling and chatting in the park, there’s a sense of intimacy but no intrusion. She’s smiling at Polke, but he lets you look over his shoulder.
In this sense, the sum can’t be more than any one of its parts, because every piece is equally whole. You can begin (and end) wherever you like. For my part, I’d choose the studies of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, which have never before been shown in the United States.
These catacombs began with a single dried-out monk in the 16th century, but by the time Polke visited, in the ’70s, they consisted of multiple galleries of well-preserved corpses, posed as in a wax museum and wearing the fashions they’d died in. (Photography is no longer allowed there, but postcards are still for sale.) The five large studies here are like X-rays of August Sander typologies: they categorize by accumulation rather than reduction, and they combine innocent fascination with an irony so medievally deep as to subvert its own subversion. (Photography is famously accused of rendering its subjects dead.)
Printed on paper the color of yellowed newsprint, its edges folded into serrations, is the very image of death as humiliation: the sleeves of a male corpse’s gray jacket are pulled forward only because he has no arms, and his skull, with its white face and dirty sides and jaw wired shut, sits directly on his shirt collar for a similar reason; but the effect is of diffident discomfort, as if he didn’t like having his picture taken. Who could blame him? He’s missing his five front teeth.
Nearby, there’s a buddy comedy about death as degradation: two figures sit on the ground like Bowery bums, leaning against a shelf across which a third is sleeping. One of them has a hood pulled over his skull and his skinless chin sunken on his chest, but the other, who has a flowing black tie, rakishly enormous lapels and enough skin left to make something of an ear and an open mouth, appears to be still awake. If you turn quickly over your left shoulder, you might just catch the tips of the great black wings he must be staring at in amazement.
Another two buddies are raggedy confidence men: one has a face as white as a clown’s, with a razor-sharp cheekbone and fringe of brownish hair, and looks up thoughtfully at his deeply shadowed partner, who, in a high, black collar, with a dirty, gray skull, shadow-black eyes, and a rough, white cigarette, is looking down at his hands rolling a cigarette, counting money from a game of three-card monte, reading the Bible and stacking souls. (He’s able to do all these things at once because his hands are out of sight.)
The last two buddies are victims: in matching burlap sweaters they lean against a white wall. One, despite a bonnet, wears a sign on his chest with his name: GIUSEPPE AJELLO. Behind the other’s head, on top of a low wall, is a pair of black boots.
One final corpse in a heavy black coat dozes with his chin on his chest. He’s lost his nose and ears and most of his hair, but not the rest of his skin. Once he was alive, and later his skull will be clean, but every moment is its own moment, and all these views of death are latent in one another.