Lackadaisically printed in precious gelatin silver on roughly cut yellowing paper, the oversized photo shows two decomposing cadavers leaning against a catacomb wall. One has a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and the other stares mischievously out of the corner of his eye socket, as if he is sharing a joke. These fellows have been dead for ages, yet they could easily be revelers in carnival skull masks smoking outside a bar.
The photograph, taken in Palermo in 1976 by the late dean of post-war German artists, Sigmar Polke (1941-2010), is being shown, along with four others from the same series, for the first time in the United States. The corpses are the first thing to be seen across the room in Leo Koenig Inc.’s two-gallery exhibition of Polke’s incandescent photography. To the left, another group of photographs includes a self-portrait of the mischievous artist looking back at us over his shoulder, like a king in a royal robe. He’s draped in his famous 1968 "Cloth of Abuse," an enormous white fabric covered with German curses scrawled in rolling black cursive script.
Taken during the installation of a show in 1970, the picture is suffused with milky light. The print was made in 1990 and overlaid with another negative showing the gallery skylight, so that Polke seems about to levitate up to the sky. His pictures are lined up on the floor leaning against the wall with the corners still protected by cardboard. We are caught before the show takes place, even though it ended 40 years ago.
Over-painted with colored graffiti, a more rambunctious self-portrait in the back room was taken when Polke won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1986. Holding a movie camera, Polke depicts himself nose to nose with a scrawled death’s head labeled Kiefer (along with a few expletives). He seems to be jeering at his slightly younger rival, whose work is as leaden and heavy as Polke’s is weightless and alive.
A door or two down the street, a smaller self-portrait can be found in Koenig’s project space, along with a series of 64 images documenting the installation and opening of Polke’s first photography show, organized in 1977 by Erhard Klein in Kassel, Germany. Some of the Capuchin photos can be seen on the installation shots, both pinned to the walls and thrown on the floor.
There’s also a set of 14 lithographs from 1968, called “Hoehere Wesen Befehlen" (Higher Beings Commanded). With his keen sense of the ridiculous, Polke turns various objects, buttons balloons and himself, into representations of palm trees. Standing on tiptoes in his underpants, again like an angel on the verge of ascending to heaven, he wears a necklace of white paper cut into the shape of leaves.
After he died last year, Polke no doubt went to heaven, where he’s flapping those palm wings on a cloud. While Kiefer continues earthbound, making over-scaled funerary monuments, Polke brought life into death -- his photographs are so vibrant they all seem about to fly away. Prices range from $16,000 to $1.2 million for the Palermo group of five.
"Sigmar Polke: Photoworks 1964-2000," June 21-Sept. 3, 2011, at Leo Koenig Inc., 545 West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.