Nick Hackworth

Sigmar Polke: History of Everything, Tate Modern

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

As Boy George once observed: “When you’re famous they’ll forgive you almost anything.” High on the list of the acceptable sins of the celebrity is mediocrity. That is just as well for Sigmar Polke, for that is what this once-vigorous global art star has become.

Now 63, Polke first came to attention along with his fellow countryman Gerhard Richter. In the Sixties they fronted post-war Germany’s Pop Art movement, Capitalist Realism, and played with the images and concepts of mass consumerism, though far more obliquely, subtly and humorously than their brash American counterparts. In the Seventies, Polke experimented with drugs, communal living, photography and film. In the Eighties, his strongest period, he returned to painting. The pop-art strategy of collage was his mainstay. Appropriated media images, odd materials, printed fabrics and passages of abstract and figurative painting often cohered in the same work, but sometimes formed the substance of pieces by themselves. He was the postmodern artist par excellence, shifting between artistic styles at will and playing with cultural symbols. Yet there was an odd aesthetic unity to the work and an underlying vibrancy.

Since then, however, Polke has gone nowhere. The title of the exhibition, with its suggestion of a binding narrative or presiding intelligence, proves utterly disingenuous. Most of the generally massive works here, all done in the past six years, are, as before, visual collages, but they are curiously flat and empty. Visual references to America feature prominently, explicable since many of the works were made for this show’s first stop at the Dallas Museum of Art. We see US Marines playing Risk, the world-domination board game, an image about the intelligence war against al Qaeda and lots of pictures of guns culled from Texan newspapers, including I Don’t Really Think About Anything Too Much.

Polke has never been one for making direct political statements with his art and this selection of appropriated media images is not meant to be simple anti-Americanism. But there is little aesthetic joy in his handling of these and other images. Nor is his work now notable, as it once was, for its virtuoso passages of painting. Quickly read and easily forgotten, it has become almost indistinguishable from the mass culture from which it once stood out.

Until 4 January 2004. Information: 020 7863 8000.