If there were any art fever, or any intellectual fever, left in New York City, I am certain that “Alibis: Sigmar Polke: 1963–2010,” the immense retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art, would be receiving a thunderously complicated response. Polke specializes in the glamour of bewilderment, a confusion provoked by work that ranges from anemic and presumably ironic little doodles to wildly voluptuous canvases created with pours and washes of synthetic resin, mixed with pigments, silver bromide, and sundry other exotic materials. If you respond to the fascinations of slacker chic, then Polke is for you. This artist, who died in 2010 at the age of 69, is a cross between a slob-provocateur and a brutish aesthete. His outlier art-star style is just right for a moment when everybody is tired of art stars but most people have no idea where else to turn.
Compared with Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, the two other postwar German painters with enormous international reputations, Polke remains, despite his many appearances in the United States (including a drawing show at MoMA in 1999), something of an artist’s artist. His influence is now at flood tide, the mingling of gadabout hedonism and ostentatious disaffection in paintings, drawings, assemblages, photographs, and films echoed in countless little gallery shows on the ultra-hip Lower East Side. There is a princely arrogance in Polke’s down-and-dirty games, a sporadic visual avidity that complicates the self-congratulatory anomie. When he layers painted images on cheap printed textiles, the results, although ultimately little more than artsy attitudinizing, can seduce the eye. And when Polke borrows calligraphic devices from Dürer and allows them to hover over expanses of smoke-gray paint, he engineers something that at least echoes the elegant effects of the best of Cy Twombly. I find myself succumbing to the seductions of Polke’s tastiest visual play without really feeling moved. He is an egomanical seducer—an artistic Lothario.
The Polke retrospective is an event, no question about it. What I fear is that it is going to come and go without inspiring the heated debate that it deserves. In terms of exhibition space, the Museum of Modern Art and Kathy Halbreich, the curator in charge, have been extraordinarily generous; the show sprawls through much of the museum’s second floor. There are some 250 works, ranging from the comic neurasthenia of early Polke, when this man who had been born in Silesia was coming of age in Düsseldorf, through the layered paintings on printed fabrics from his drug-taking period in the 1970s and the more conventionally eye-filling paintings of the 1980s and 1990s. There are plenty of drawings, sketchbooks, assemblages, photographs, and films. The show even has audio elements, collages of live and recorded music, sounds from radio and television, and voices of friends, much of this material collected by Polke in the 1970s.
What is missing at MoMA—the absence is felt intensely in Halbreich’s catalogue text—is the intellectual firepower that used to turn MoMA shows into megawatt debates. In place of the brainy, rambunctious advocacy, however wrongheaded, that William Rubin brought to Frank Stella in the 1980s and Robert Storr brought to Gerhard Richter in 2002, Halbreich’s essay opens with the confession that the work “often confuses me” and “sometimes scares me.” I can feel her backing away from the bulldozer event she has organized, and the effect of the catalogue, with well over a dozen essays by different writers, suggests a collective hedging of bets.
In place of artistic judgments, we now have sociological observations. The contributors to the Polke catalogue gnaw on the history of twentieth-century Germany as if it were an old bone. And if this institutional pedantry were not troubling enough, it is echoed in the bland adulation and downed energies of the critical establishment, where shrinking word counts have left reviewers with little opportunity to do much more than go thumbs up or thumbs down—and online sensibilities all too often demand little more. The result is that a show that should have people arguing in the galleries and continuing those arguments over coffee, drinks, and dinner has all the force of a rapidly deflating balloon.
Among the critics, art stars on the order of Polke have become anthills to be bolstered and fortified, but without any particular enthusiasm. Even kudos are awarded with a certain weary caution. What is now all the rage is the romance of the outsider and the outlier; each critic, curator, and collector has his or her own special pets. Of course we all know what fuels this new attitude, given the ridiculous over-inflation purveyed by mega-galleries like Gagosian, Zwirner, and Hauser & Wirth, the wall-to-wall marketing marathon of the art fairs, and the seven- and eight-figure prices for some contemporary art. What is so troubling about this critical quasi-Quakerism, with its prayerful consideration of the little guy or gal and its ineffectual moral outrage, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with questions of taste, quality, or artistic judgment as applied to specific works of art.
After going along with the Pop-ification of culture that produced the current crop of creative and institutional Goliaths, the arts community has decided to side with the Davids. The trouble is that by now everybody is so entrenched in their Pop sensibilities that they are incapable of distinguishing between the acres of bombast and the flashes of poetry in the work of a Sigmar Polke or a Matthew Barney—or for that matter in any of the little people they are so eager to endorse. Not long ago I was fascinated by the paltry response to the premiere of Barney’s enormous new movie extravaganza, River of Fundament, which has passages of considerable beauty but was dismissed almost before anybody had seen it as nothing but another case of art-star swagger. And of course the Museum of Modern Art currently finds itself playing Goliath to the American Folk Art Museum’s David, with MoMA, despite widespread protests, determined to tear down the sliver of a building put up a decade ago by the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street and purchased by MoMA when the smaller institution nearly went bankrupt. While I agree with most observers that MoMA ought to have found a way to save the American Folk Art Museum’s admittedly quirky former home, the fact that the structure by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien is a very bad piece of architecture seems to get lost in the paroxysms of small-is-beautiful self-righteousness.
Behind the altogether human fascination with power games that turns the visual arts into journalistic cotton candy, ancient debates still percolate and shape what we are seeing and what we understand. In the arts, as in geopolitics, there is no end to history despite all the talk we have heard about the end of history. Sigmar Polke takes us right back to debates that raged in the last third of the nineteenth century and lingered well into the twentieth century, between the avant-garde and the artists whom they mockingly labeled the pompiers—literally, firefighters. Pompier (used either as a noun or an adjective) became an avant-garde term of derision for the slick tricks of painters who were the popular hits in the nineteenth century’s enormous public exhibitions. I found myself thinking about the pompiers as I sat in a large room toward the end of MoMA’s Polke show, where the compositions, many with a motif of a watchtower (which strongly suggests the Holocaust and the camps), have a perfervid-chic look, with cloudbanks of purplish pigment and showers of glinting silver. In the Larousse, pompier is said to have characterized work that was “over-emphatic” and “pretentious.” What better way to describe Sigmar Polke? So now—in a sort of reversal of fortune gleefully predicted half a century ago by none other than Salvador Dalí—Sigmar Polke, though championed as an inheritor of the avant-garde strategies of the Dadaists and the Abstract Expressionists, turns out to be the new pompier.
The origins of the term pompier remain unclear, although the most popular theory focuses on a resemblance that avant-garde artists saw between the helmets worn by classical heroes in the work of academic painters and the helmets firefighters wore. But the artists who specialized in Greco-Roman history were not the only ones who came to be regarded as pompiers. The term was applied to Bouguereau’s seductive recapitulations of Raphael Madonnas and to the photographic realism of Gérôme, Detaille, and Meissonier. It is certainly not irrelevant that pompier brings to mind pompeux, or pompous. The thing about the pompiers was that however knowledgeable and skilled they were—and many were close students not only of the art of the past but also of the art of their own day—to avant-garde eyes, their effects remained on the surface, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. Virtuosity was detached from authenticity. If the pompier’s style was classicizing, then Raphael’s risky arabesques were turned into rote compositional curves and arcs. By the late nineteenth century, when the pompiers were adapting the lighter palette the Impressionists had pioneered in the 1870s, the blue and purple shadows and roiling brushwork of Monet were reinterpreted without their anxious edge. For decades, then, the word was a much beloved term of derision, as when Degas, no doubt thinking of the academy’s tendency to turn virtuosity into nothing but a show of hubris, observed, “C’est les pompiers qui se mettent en feu,” or “The firefighters are setting fire to themselves.”
If I am right, a great deal of what we are now seeing in the blue-chip galleries, the art fairs, and the auction houses is a new kind of pompier, with avant-garde attitudes that are by now venerable traditions turned into surface effects, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. John Currin’s figure paintings, with their blunt-force recapitulations of Boucher and Courbet, are almost textbook pompier. So is the figurative work of Lisa Yuskavage, seen in 2011 at Zwirner, and Glenn Brown, currently at Gagosian. Pompier painting was all about a kind of knowingness. Technique was marshaled not for deep experience but for immediate goals. When the painter Bonnat showed Degas a work by one of his students representing a warrior drawing his bow and said, “Just see how well he aims,” Degas is said to have responded, “Aiming at a prize, isn’t he?” Jeff Koons, always aiming for the prize of a bigger paycheck and this summer receiving the prize of an enormous Whitney retrospective, could be said to be a pompier version of Duchamp, with the master’s uncomfortable ironies smoothed out into easy seductions. A history of the new pompiers would wind back to the 1980s, when the Musée d’Orsay opened in Paris, giving institutional legitimacy to what had already been a growing interest in the original pompiers, and the Neo-Expressionists—especially Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl—inaugurated an era of visual ostentation characterized by brash perplexities, by difficulty reimagined as a form of salesmanship. As it happens, Schnabel is having something of a revival just now, with a big show at Gagosian in Chelsea.
Among the late modern and postmodern pompiers, Polke is distinguished by the verve that he brings to his painterly concoctions. The fascination of his strongest compositions is in the way he works us over, titillating with special effects, enveloping us in the big hug of his visual mood music. That is certainly how I felt as I looked at Polke’s more than sixteen-foot-wide Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters (1991), with its Abstract Expressionist torrent of white paint over which Polke has cleverly layered an engraving of nineteenth-century figures from Grandville’s book Un Autre Monde, the allegorical figure of Autumn making snow that her daughters toss across the surface. The painting is almost crushingly lovely—a Neo-Dadaist romantic stage set, a Walt Disney-ized version of what might have been a Robert Motherwell idea. Equally beguiling, near the end of the show, is the nearly ten-foot-wide The Illusionist (2007), filled with figures derived from nineteenth-century engravings and executed in gel medium and acrylic on fabric, so that everything is as if seen through a sheet of old handblown glass. At the heart of this magical kingdom framed in faux curtains is a man who must be the illusionist and a woman blindfolded in a chair who must be his prime subject. Here is one of Joseph Cornell’s dream worlds, only on steroids. These pictures represent the gentler side of Polke. Amid his work in so many media, manners, and modes, there are also quite a few that aim to repel and maybe even revolt us, but even early in the show, where Polke’s faux-naïf paintings of a chocolate bar and a trio of biscuits are crudely forthright, there is a feeling for the cuisine of painting, even if it is an anti-cuisine cuisine.
Polke’s work, with its careening diversity, reminds us how close a link there is between virtuosity and parody, for virtuosity, when detached from some deep sympathy with an idea or ideal, almost inevitably becomes a joke of one sort or another. In 1968, in a series of paintings that fill much of a room at MoMA, Polke served up self-consciously flat-footed parodies of classic modern styles, including a “primitivist” painting with a rendering of an African statue, a Constructivist composition of strict verticals and horizontals, and a Color Field painting with a quartet of casually inscribed stripes. The knowingness of these paintings suggests a con artist you quite understandably find distasteful but whose cons for some reason fascinate as well. Compared with the iciness of Roy Lichtenstein’s satires of classic modern styles, there is something almost engaged about Polke, albeit in a sniggering way. When Polke incorporates in his paintings patterns of dots derived from commercial halftone printing, he gives them more life than Lichtenstein ever does, especially in Flying Saucers (1966), where the delicacy in the coloring of a yellowish sky spins a bit of magic above a toylike skyline.
Polke’s feeling for the romance of photomechanical reproduction was what first set me to thinking about his relationship with Dalí, who also took an interest in the halftone’s dot screen. Although discussions of Polke’s use of commercial styles and kitsch motifs generally focus on a connection with the work of Francis Picabia—this was the subject of a well-known essay in Artforum in 1982 by the art historian Benjamin Buchloh—at the Museum of Modern Art, it was Dalí I found coming to mind. Polke is a far more rough-hewn character than the dandified Dalí, but they do share a voracious eclecticism. Like Polke, Dalí had a sweet tooth when it came to optical tricks and regarded avant-garde experimentalism as a dumb-ass joyride; he riffed on Yves Klein’s blue body prints by slathering models in red paint to make his own body prints. Dalí not only mimicked the academic realism of artists such as Gérôme and Meissonier, he also enjoyed parodying the splattered paint of Pollock and Matthieu, the once famous exemplar of art informel,the French parallel to Abstract Expressionism.
With Polke, as with Dalí, style is a put-on job, an act—but an act pressed with such intensity that it takes on a weird, almost repellent authority. What has been referred to as the confusion or chaos of MoMA’s Polke show is so much a matter of spectacular dissonances and layerings that it produces no real disquietude in a gallerygoer, but rather what might be called a pompier disquietude—a confusion that is an academic rerun of the old Dadaist confusions. Since there is some authentic pictorial feeling in Polke, the conflicts are more interesting than they are in some other artists, but this self-congratulatory confusion characterizes many of the more outré art stars of recent years, among them Martin Kippenberger and Mike Kelley.
I realize that calling an artist a pompier can degenerate into little more than name-calling. To some it will seem far-fetched to refer to Polke as a pompier, when he was so interested in de-skilling—the de-skilling that was one of the avant-garde’s prime tools to counteract conventional ideas of finish or polish associated with the academy. In an interview in the MoMA catalogue, Benjamin Buchloh, who in 1976 in Germany mounted the first survey of Polke’s work, argues that the slapdash look of Polke’s drawings, which he admires enormously, is grounded in a self-consciously avant-garde rejection of virtuosity. Buchloh wonders, “How do you de-skill drawing and still draw?” He asserts that Polke had to be “extremely good at drawing, to generate that degree of refined brutishness.” Although I do not agree with Buchloch that Polke is a “supreme draftsman”—I fail to see the depths in these doodles—what interests me is that Buchloh cannot avoid the whole question of virtuosity and its conscious denial, which brings us back to the great debate between the pompiers and the avant-garde. For Buchloh, the early Polke is the real virtuoso because he is a stealth virtuoso, or so Buchloh imagines. Buchloh explains that “Polke’s manner of de-skilling drawing by pushing it over to the threshold of the manifestly incompetent or deranged is always sustained in the last moment by its lyrical line.”
Buchloh’s argument about Polke’s drawings sounds like some of the arguments made on behalf of Matisse’s most daring experiments in the years leading up to World War I. And this argument about the virtues of de-skilling can be found even earlier, for example in Renoir’s comment that “some of Rembrandt’s finest etchings look as if they had been done with a stick of wood or the point of a nail.” Which is all to say that what Buchloh is making is an argument for the anarchic anti-virtuosity of Polke as being grounded in a version of old-fashioned artistic virtuosity. This is probably how the curators at the Museum of Modern Art would like us to regard the entirety of “Alibis,” although Halbreich’s admission that the work sometimes confuses or scares her may suggest that she has some worries on this count.
The retrospective presents Polke as a megalomaniacal show-off, the dystopian and utopian aspects of his personality mingled and clashed. For a time Polke was close friends with Gerhard Richter. Much as Richter’s shifts from representation to abstraction and back have been seen as an attempt to trump the old modern debates but actually only mimic them, so Polke’s Neo-Dada permissiveness ultimately feels stale and second-hand—no, third-hand. If the pompiers of the nineteenth century were condemned to reenact the old polemics of classicists, romantics, and realists as mere poses and posturings, who can doubt that Polke is reenacting as poses and posturings the old polemics of the Dadaists and the abstractionists?
A good percentage of the art world is now dominated by pompier reenactments of one variety or another; many call it postmodern, but pompier is more to the point. Of course all art is in some sense a reenactment: that is one definition of tradition. But the reenactment, to elude parody and pompier, must involve a discovery or a disclosure of what is most personal in the process of reenactment. That is what makes the old new. The Museum of Modern Art has just announced that it will host a retrospective of work by Robert Gober this fall, and although his work is in large measure a reenactment of Duchamp and Dada, Gober is anything but a pompier: his curious objects are created with a willful intentness, a finicky artisanal refinement that gives them, whether one ultimately cares for them or not, a rootedness, an authority. Robert Gober and Jeff Koons draw on more or less the same sources, but the results could not be more different. Pompier is not a style or a set of conventions but an attitude that short-circuits and trivializes a style or a set of conventions.
The pompier artist has a shallow understanding of virtuosity, but of course it is in the very nature of virtuosity, which at its best is technique that expresses emotion, that it is almost always in danger of degenerating into an empty display of technique. That may be what Buchloh sees happening in Polke’s later work, which he apparently does not care for. It is certainly how many observers used to regard the later work of de Kooning. Nowadays, de Kooning’s canvases of the 1970s and 1980s, with their swashbuckling brushwork and vertiginous color, are often praised as Rubensesque (or even Titianesque!), but I think they are most accurately described as a pompier version of Abstract Expressionist painterliness—an unfortunate case of an artist parodying himself, and not, I think, in full control or much of any control of the joke, if that is what some imagine it to be.
Of course one person’s hard-won virtuosity is another person’s competent conventionality. A case in point is the paintings of little crowds gathered by the edges of lakes in Richard La Presti’s show at the Bowery Gallery this spring. La Presti, who was born the year after Polke, is an artist whose work I have admired for decades, and after a number of exhibitions that focused on densely wooded landscapes and struck me as overly deferential in their relationship with the prismatic naturalism of Cézanne, I am delighted to report that La Presti’s broad but exact brushwork has achieved a new depth of poetic feeling. La Presti’s paintings, with their gently comic vignettes of figures in leisure-time mode, are so far from the spirit of parody and pompier that is now the art world’s default position that it may be difficult for most gallerygoers to grasp their subtle excellence. La Presti, despite his bravura brushwork, is the anti-pompier. Setting varied physiques against the glimmerings of water, sand, and sky, he makes of each brushstroke a double drama, embodying both the reality of the paint and the reality of nature, the two in a tango. This is an old modern or even a premodern tango, but who ever said there was anything wrong with another turn around the dance floor?
I see echoes of Baudelaire’s beloved Constantin Guys in the exactitude with which La Presti observes a skinny or overweight bather or a mother with a child. And there is originality in the way his full-bodied colors are marshaled to achieve a silvery wistfulness. But in the merciless calculus of the art world, Polke, whether you love him or hate him, looms very large, whereas La Presti counts not at all. It hardly matters that La Presti’s work has been written about in the art magazines from time to time, and that in recent years he has exhibited around the country with a group called Zeuxis, which brings distinguished exhibitions of still-life painting (which La Presti does when it is too cold to paint outside) to college and university galleries. La Presti, who was trained at a famous art school, Pratt Institute, by teachers who matter or at least once upon a time were thought to matter, is neither an outsider nor an outlier. He knows the museums and the history of art, so he cannot be a beneficiary of the new quasi-Quakerism, which favors the incoherent and the ill-informed, nor does his virtuosity entitle him to find favor among the new pompiers, from whose circle he is barred by his sincerity. How good do I think La Presti’s work really is? It quite naturally makes one think of Boudin, that serenely incisive painter of nineteenth-century beaches. If Boudin’s work has turned out to live, which it certainly has, I see no reason why the same should not be true of La Presti’s.
La Presti’s paintings bring to mind a phrase that I believe was coined by the painter Leland Bell, whom La Presti admires, when Bell, half a century ago, described the work of a painter he admired, André Derain. Bell wrote that Derain exemplified “virtuosity without self-interest—virtuosity conquered.” It occurs to me that Bell, who died in 1991, was probably the last person I ever heard use the term pompier in casual conversation. He was a Francophile who had spent time in Paris in the 1950s, when he must have found the word still in currency among the city’s artists. Bell clearly meant “virtuosity without self-interest” as a riposte to the self-interested virtuosity that defined pompier painting. And his phrase still bears close consideration today, when it is the challenge of a virtuosity without self-interest that artists desperately need to embrace.
The Polke show is as interested in its own virtuosity—or in its own swaggering anti-virtuosity—as any exhibition I have ever seen. The answer to self-interest, of course, is not disinterest (a word frequently misused today), which suggests impartiality, the value of remaining above the fray. Virtuosity must be a kind of vitality, but also a kind of virtue, in the sense of being tied to honesty, to authenticity, to style as a disclosure of personality. Pompier—and certainly the pompier of Polke—is a performance, and works of visual art are not primarily or essentially performances. There are rooms in the wildly jam-packed Sigmar Polke retrospective where I feel that I am being sucked in by the acts of a man who is in equal parts singular, fascinating, and overbearing. I am held by some of what Polke has done, by the cleverness and the bravado and the sheer spectacle of it all. But I exit this retrospective that’s so aptly entitled “Alibis” with a deep sense of relief. No artist who really matters has ever left me feeling that way.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).