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It All Started With a Potato Launcher -- Polke Gets Tribute

"Supermarkets" by Sigmar Polke. The work is on show at Berlin's Academy of Arts and is part of an exhibition by the Academy's president, Klaus Staeck, paying tribute to his 42-year friendship and collaboration with Polke. Source: Akademie der Kuenste via Bloomberg

The artist and publisher Klaus Staeck, president of Berlin’s Akademie der Kuenste, wrote about 100 faxes to his friend Sigmar Polke over the years. Polke, who died last year, wrote him just three in return.

“When can I visit? It’s getting urgent!” writes Staeck in one fax. “PLEASE GET IN TOUCH! PLEASE GET IN TOUCH! PLEASE GET IN TOUCH!” begs another. Even agreeing a date was no guarantee of a meeting. Polke scrawled on the back of a brown envelope, presumably pinned to his door: “Dear Klaus, I had to leave urgently. Please don’t be cross. See you soon, Sigmar.”

The faxes are mounted on the wall in the Akademie der Kuenste (Academy of Arts) at an exhibition of Polke’s work. Polke is pictured playing the recorder in an impromptu performance: Photocopies of his head, which he added to later, bear witness to a visit at Staeck’s gallery. A bill from an Indian restaurant documents multiple orders of kirsch shots.

“He was very difficult to get hold of,” Staeck said at the press preview for the exhibition. “But when you did manage to meet up with him, it was great. It would last for hours and be like a little party.”

Staeck’s company has included Polke for decades among the artists whose work it publishes. His show is a personal tribute to Polke, who died of cancer a month before his 70th birthday, and to the two men’s 42-year collaboration and friendship.

Same Wavelength

Polke, one of Germany’s best-known postwar artists, never gave television interviews and relied on Staeck, among others, to promote his work to a broader audience. Asked why most of his prints were produced by Staeck, Polke once answered, “He has the printer, the logistics, the sales and the artists.”

Staeck said the two shared an ironic brand of humor, both were originally from East Germany and both were fierce critics of the postwar West German establishment. “We ticked in similar ways,” Staeck said.

The show is no comprehensive retrospective, displaying 90 of Polke’s more political works, many from the 1960s and 1970s -- those of particular appeal to a left-wing poster artist like Staeck.

It all started, though, with a potato machine -- more Dadaist than political. The first work that Polke produced for Staeck’s publishing house was his 1969 “Apparat, mit dem eine Kartoffel eine andere umkreisen kann” (Machine Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another). A friend of Staeck’s built the contraption from Polke’s sketches, going to considerable lengths to find the right motor.

Potato Bargain

At a price of 290 deutsche marks (about $200), no buyers could be found. That would not be the case today: A Polke potato machine sold recently for more than 200,000 euros ($271,000), according to Staeck.

Polke’s work was seen as Germany’s answer to Pop Art. Yet while he adopted elements of mass culture in his work, it was to mock what it stood for rather than embrace it. His approach to western consumerism and politics was critical and satirical.

That emerges especially in “Wir Kleinbuerger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen” (We Petty Bourgeois! Comrades and Contemporaries,) a series of 10 long forgotten, complex and multilayered large-format gouaches.

In one, Polke shows men in Superman costumes pushing trolleys along well-stocked aisles. Emblazoned across the top is the word “Supermarkets!” Price tags for non-purchasable goods such as “anti-misery spray,” “happiness” and “peaceful nights” are stuck haphazardly over the image.

Others feature terrorists, sex, drugs and poverty and bizarre fantasy figures. This was about challenging the petty bourgeois -- not pandering to them.

“Sigmar Polke -- eine Hommage” (Sigmar Polke -- A Homage) is at the Akademie der Kuenste in Berlin through March 13. Information:

(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)

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