Informed by Travel, Sigmar Polke Painted Playful Journeys
In 1980, the German artist Sigmar Polke traveled the world, from Indonesia to Tasmania to Thailand. The trip informed Polke's subsequent work—his use of unconventional materials and brilliant, sometimes chemically toxic, colors. Now the David Zwirner Gallery is presenting a show, "Eine Winterreise (Winter Journey)," that focuses on the theme of travel in Polke's work, from his playful take on 1960s tourist scenes to his layered paintings from the 1980s that explore intellectual as well as physical journeys.
The exhibition, at Zwirner's West 20th Street location, is the first since the gallery announced last fall that it had taken on representation of the Polke estate. (Polke died in 2010.)
Curated by Vicente Todolí, the show includes large-scale paintings—like "Magnetische Landschaft (Magnetic Landscape)," an abstract mountainscape from 1982, and the "Lappländische Reise (Lapland Journey)" series from 1984—as well as experimental films documenting Polke's experiences.
The Museum of Modern Art's ambitious 2014 retrospective of the German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) encompassed much of his peripatetic travels from medium to medium but stinted on the ravishing, unsettling, sometimes abject beauty that is strongest in his paintings.
"Eine Winterreise," at David Zwirner, corrects that shortcoming. Organized by Vicente Todolí, it's a complete knockout of 31 works on canvas, printed fabric, clear plastic and semitransparent polyester, most of them dating from the 1980s. The show's title, which translates as "A Winter’s Journey," nods toPolke's travels during the 1980s to climes tropical and chilly that affected his subject matter and sense of color.
The works here highlight an apparent inability to make a bad painting, or at least a talent for ones whose loose but indelible touch, bracing wit and slapdash pictorial wizardry consistently taunt us with that possibility.
They also demonstrate Polke's indifference to any division between representation and abstraction, and his unwavering devotion to experimental materials and techniques. "Night Cap I" (1986), a dark, precipitous mountainscape that is also a Color Field stain painting, uses only indigo and alcohol varnish.
Light—rays, orbs, splashes and other emanations—is the driving concernhere, announced by the shimmering "Moonlit Landscape With Reeds" (1969) in the first gallery. With a brilliant moon overlooking a watery horizon formed by the seam joining two patterned fabrics, it is, like so much in Polke's work, an exultation in quick, scanty brush work. Light is especially palpable in "Magic Lantern (Earth and Moon)," a miniseries of six two-sided paintings on semitransparent polyester rarely exhibited in this country that tell a storybook tale of astral travel, and havoc, in stained-glass colors. This show proceeds at top speed to the end.