This issue of May considers the reception of Sigmar Polke in France, from the 1980s to the first American retrospective dedicated to his work, which took place at MoMA in New York in April 2014 and subsequently traveled to Europe to the Tate Modern in London and finally to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in the spring of 2015.
Polke began showing his work at the Bama gallery in Paris in 1982, and in 1989 and 1990 (when the gallery’s name had changed to Crousel Robelin Bama) he presented a series of paintings in two parts inspired by the French Revolution, which coincided with its bicentenary as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Shortly before, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris had organized a retrospective, which remains a dazzling memory for many people. Polke’s work was also shown in an exhibition dedicated to him by the Carré d’Art in Nîmes in 1994, and later in 2002 at the Musée de la Révolution française in Vizille. Despite all this, the international press provided little coverage of the recent exhibition organized by the Musée de Grenoble in 2013, under the guidance of Guy Tosatto, its director and Polke’s longtime friend.
By interesting ourselves specifically with the dynamic that Polke maintained with galleries and the way in which he worked with institutions, we attempted to establish a model of relationships in which artists can remain autonomous. Taking this idea as a starting point, we explored the current dynamic of artist-gallery relations with emerging artists looking to position themselves early on, despite a changed context.
The reception of Polke’s work still remains to be fully analyzed—notably in France. But the recent translation of texts published in German by authors such as Benjamin Buchloh, Friedrich Heubach, Bice Curiger and Polke himself sheds an entirely new light on the period of the late 1960s (when Polke began working with Richter) and the early 1970s (a time of collective artistic and existential experimentation), which cannot be ignored if his work is to be fully understood, and which still seems to be considered a period of little interest to art historians. In a text from 2000, Friedrich Heubach evokes a way in which Polke’s position in the 1960s and 70s, between Baselitz and Richter, could be understood: “Baselitz aims for the depths, Richter aims above the summit, Polke aims beyond the horizon.” It is time we return to these ideas.
-  Mariette Althaus and Xavier Douroux (eds.), Polke et les esprits supérieurs (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2015). ↩