“It is clear that higher beings are omnipresent and all-responsible. This is Polke’s disclaimer, reminiscent of the assertion reputed to have been written in Picasso’s studio—I’m God—the difference being that whereas Picasso assumed all responsibility, Polke accepts none” (R. Holt, “Polke’s Work: Verb Posing as Nouns,” in D. Thistlewood (ed.), Sigmar Polke Back to Postmodernity, Liverpool 1996, p. 123).
With its elusive and ambiguous title, Sigmar Polke’s Höhere Wesen befehlen (Higher Beings Command), 1967-1968, takes up the brilliantly unorthodox ploy of ‘Higher Beings’ to investigate the cult of the artistic genius and the mysterious origins of creative impulse—a strategy the artist first introduced in the mid-1960s and which would he would re-visit in various guises in the ensuing decades. A definitive example from Polke’s formative years, Höhere Wesen befehlen presents us with a striking composition gouache and portfolio of photolithographs: alongside the fantastical, cheerful drawings, we are presented with black-and-white photographs of the artist giving nonsensical performances for the camera, as well as of tabletop sculptures made from quotidian materials. Conceptually fusing photography, text, performance and drawing, with reference to Dada, Fluxus, Duchampian readymades and Conceptualism, this work demonstrates the multifarious, eclectic and trans-medial nature of Polke’s celebrated oeuvre.
Already as a student at the renown Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, Polke was profoundly aware that no image, painterly style or mannerism could adequately capture what space-age science had revealed to be a vast and unknowable reality. The motif of ‘Higher Beings’ first appeared in 1966 with Polke’s Vitrine Piece (Vitrinenstueck), an installation he created for the Kunstakademie’s annual exhibition, and which featured the painting The Picture That was Painted by Command of Higher Beings surrounded with objects, photographs and texts that documented the being’s existence. Created in the wake of this installation and preceding Polke’s infamous 1969 painting Higher Beings Command: Paint the upper-right corner black!, this portfolio is part of the artist’s ongoing assault on rationality and the monsters of order and reason; by publicly declaring to be an artist working at the command of others, rather than from his own inspiration and ideas, Polke supposedly denies himself the freedom of choice. As such, the portfolio’s juxtaposition of absurdist inventory of photography images with the faux naïve gouache drawings—depicting, for example, a family on beach holiday or a monkey holding a suitcase—brilliantly captures the wry humor and irony with which Polke has constantly defied the aesthetic boundaries and conventions of art making. Created upon completion of Polke’s studies at the, Höhere Wesen befehlen can be considered a rebellious yet playful comment on the authority and orthodoxy of the institution’s famed professors. Indeed, poking fun at German bureaucracy and petit-bourgeoisie as well as the serious impersonal, typological photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher and the shamanistic performance of Joseph Beuys—all of which held tenures at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf whilst Polke was a student there—the seemingly dead-pan photographs reveal themselves to be the pseudo-records of witty material transformations and humorous performances. Placing quotidian objects and material and even himself under the service of depiction, Polke in this work creates ephemeral readymade sculptures from buttons, gloves, bread or glasses and enacted performances that resemble or conceptually play with the symbol and form of the palm tree. In one instance, Polke turns a yellow measuring-stick, an object of quantification, regulation and standardization, into this very signifier of vacation and leisure. As Benjamin Buchloh has succinctly put forward, this is “a quintessentially petit-bourgeois household object, and to take that object of utter hopelessness and turn that into a palm tree as a sign of exotic life and spiritual loyalty is Polke at his most exquisitely humorous best” (B. Buchloh, as quoted in Alibis, New York 2014, p. 202).
Encapsulating Polke’s unparalleled ability to sardonically disrupt the status quo through manifestly banal subject matter, Höhere Wesen befehlen also makes a serious point about artistic freedoms in context of a divided, post-war Germany. This is epitomized perhaps most succinctly in the photograph of Polke’s Whip, an object that hast the potential to flagellate the artist with his own image, and in Correction of the Lines of the Hand (Korrektur an den Handlinien), which depicts a forearm clad in a suit jacket and an outstretched palm extending from the bottom of the frame. Alluding directly to very physical locus of artistic creation, the palm becomes the surface upon which Polke plays with the avant-garde dichotomies and structuring principles of body and machine, rationality and irrationality. Strikingly similar to El Lissitzky’s iconic photograph of an outstretched hand holding a compass, best known from the double-exposure Self-Portrait of the Artist as Constructor, an acute angle is drawn in pen across, presumably Polke’s, palm—highlighting the irregularity of the hand’s actual lines in relation to the tool of reason and as such critically commenting on artists’ compliance to external conventions of style and taste and the lofty claims of the avant-garde.