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enjoy discourse: Sigmar Polke, Günter Brus, 1973

mumok collects

To accompany the exhibition Enjoy – The mumok Collection in Change, the presentation Re/Actions undertakes a contextualization of Vienna Actionism in terms of contemporary international trends. Magnus Schaefer’s text looks at a work by Sigmar Polke which is entitled Günter Brus and uses an image of that artist.

enjoy discourse: Sigmar Polke, Günter Brus, 1973

Since the late 1960s, Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) not only worked in painting and drawing, but was also continuously taking photographs and making films and (later) videos. One might say that his understanding of media was promiscuous, gaining its dynamics from an interest in experimental hybrid forms. Polke transferred mechanically reproduced halftone images from newspapers into drawings or painting by meticulously recreating them in a manual process, sometimes dot by dot. His films are often full of multiple exposures and superimpositions, which have a counterpart in his quite literally multi-layered paintings. While the technical medium of photography typically favors unlimited reproduction, Polke foregrounds mechanical and chemical chance processes to create unique pictures with painterly effects and tactile surfaces that often comment on or even co-constitute the subject of the image. His portrait of Günter Brus (born 1938) from the Menschenbilder 3 portfolio of 1973 is a case in point. It obscures the legible figurative content through dramatic contrasts between dark and light areas and indexical traces of the developer fluid. Polke took another leap across media by reproducing the photograph with a cheap offset print method­—in line with the attempted democratization of art through editions and portfolios in the 1970s.

Thematically, this image of Brus is related to other artist’s portraits that Polke made in the 1970s, such as those of James Lee Byars in a New York apartment or of Gilbert and George visiting the Gaspelshof, a farm near Düsseldorf where Polke practiced an open form of communal living with a circle of artist friends and like-minded people. Like Byars and Gilbert and George, Brus was not a member of Polke’s close circle of friends. Polke took the photo of Brus on the occasion of documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972, where both artists presented works in the context of the large section entitled Individual Mythologies. From today’s perspective, their photographically documented meeting is all the more surprising since the work is hardly mentioned in the literature on Polke and a comprehensive exploration of possible links between Polke and Vienna Actionism has not yet been attempted.

This photograph must at least have been important enough for Polke to have it reproduced in the Menschenbilder portfolio. The portrait allows us to see affinities between the two artists, who were nearly the same age, in terms of both form and content. Both of them initially engaged with the gestural abstract painting that was highly influential in European art in the early 1960s. Brus did this by gradually expanding painting into physical spaces and the temporality of performances or “actions,” making his own body a canvas on which existential questions of pain, lust, and repression could be performed. Polke countered what had become the rather stuffy idealism of current abstraction with friendly but biting humor and by crosspollinating the possibilities of painting and technical reproduction. In the politically and socially turbulent 1960s, both artists reacted to the continuity of certain social tendencies that had culminated a generation before them in fascism, war, and genocide. In their respective ways, both Polke and Brus drew guiding principles for their work from what was considered to be dirty or impure, or remained unsaid. At the time of their meeting in Kassel, Brus had been living in Germany for about two years to escape criminal charges in conjunction with his action Art and Revolution at the University of Vienna in 1968, which the Austrian authorities saw as the “degradation of Austrian symbols,” a “public nuisance,” and a “violation of morals and modesty.” Polke’s photography is a hybrid of various media that, recalling Brus’s own actions, abstracts Brus’s body in a painterly way, merging its representation with the indexical grime left by the developer solution, which would be expected to disappear behind the image in a “proper” photograph. Like in Brus’s theatrical actions, the boundaries of the body are dissolved in the materiality of the photograph here, challenging the ideological integrity of the male body—which in Brus’s case was very much an “Austrian” body. From today’s perspective, it can also be read as a white and Western body, particularly if we consider the quasi-ethnographical (and politically not unproblematic) gaze that Polke developed in the 1970s in his photographs and films from his journeys to Afghanistan, Brazil, and the USA. Like a time capsule, Polke’s portrait of Brus shows these hitherto hardly acknowledged parallels between these two artists.

Magnus Schaefer

Magnus Schaefer is an author and curator. From 2012 to 2019 he was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he worked on the retrospectives Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010 (2014) and Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts (2018–2019), and organized Projects 195: Park McArthur (2018–2019). He is currently a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal. His research focuses on human perception and its mediation in the interconnected histories of digital sound synthesis and psychoacoustics.