‘Sigmar Polke. As everyone knew, he was the man of the 1970s’ (M. Kippenberger, quoted in P. Lange-Berndt and D. Rübel (eds). Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois: Comrades and Contemporaries. The 1970s, Cologne 2011, p. 29).
‘In contrast to the early works from the mid-1960s, Polke’s diversity and simultaneity of stylistic elements in the 1970s, elements that superimposed and interlaced each other, made him into a specifically postmodern Pop artist’ (M. Wagner, ‘Polke’s Pop’, in P. Lange-Berndt and D. Rubel (eds.), Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois! Comrades and Contemporaries. The 1970s, Cologne 2011, p. 406).
‘Polke’s layering and overlapping of borrowed images, so that their meanings come unfixed and enter a state of flux, have been described as “postmodern play”; the sources for these images extends from the flickering cartoons and underground movements of the 1970s to the “motivic combinations” of the storeroom of art history’ (K. Rottmann, ‘Polke in Context: A Chronology’, in Sigmar Polke: Alibis, exh. cat, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, p. 41).
Formerly in the Saatchi Collection, IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S (‘I’ll take care of it Je$s) is one of Sigmar Polke’s largest and most important paintings of the 1970s. A vast, over three-metres-high by two-metres-wide layered-stencil painting of a John Wayne-type macho cowboy and two desperados executed on a heavy brown felt ground, the painting is a fond critique of America, its foreign politics, cowboy movies and glamourizing of violence. It was made in 1972 at the onset of a period of pioneering artistic exploration for Polke when he adopted many different media, experimented with communal living, made frequent trips to Afghanistan, Brazil and Pakistan, but created few paintings. Alongside the other two equally famous and similarly monumentally-scaled fabric paintings that Polke made in 1972 - Alice im Wunderland and Mao (now in the Museum of Modern Art New York) - IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S forms a powerful triumvirate of large and occasionally free-hanging pictures which, together, have served as a kind of pictorial manifesto for Polke’s entire countercultural aesthetic of the 1970s.
Often hung together as a group in major exhibitions of Polke’s work - such as during his first major retrospective at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven in 1976 for example - these three outsize paintings, collectively announced the socio-critical, anti-bourgeois platform of protest and alternative living that Polke and the collective enterprise he organized in the early 70s was to pursue in ever more expansive form throughout the decade. All of these three paintings were originally created on traditional canvas stretchers, but were soon afterwards, ‘liberated’ from these wooden confines to become boundary-less, freely suspended painted fabrics that each hung in the manner of a banner. The often disorientating, multi-layered subject-matter of these epic works both posited a new, non-conventional and non-hierarchical way of looking at things and at the same time collectively defined the range and focus of Polke’s countercultural critique of contemporary society. This critique was a concerted attack on and a parody of all bourgeois convention and societal stereotyping that Polke and his ‘comrades and collaborators’ - Polke & Co as they were also sometimes called - mounted in the 1970s. Alice im Wunderland, Mao and IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S are the three works that effectively inaugurated this countercultural period in Polke’s oeuvre and as a result stand like the three main pillars of his early 1970’s aesthetic. ‘Hung side-by-side’, as Petra Lange-Berndt and Dietmar Rübel have written of these imposing paintings, they ‘provoke a comparison of systems and a showdown of ideologies’ (P. Lange-Berndt, D. Rübel, ‘Multiple Maniacs’, in Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois: Comrades and Contemporaries. The 1970s, Cologne, 2011, p. 54).
Alice im Wunderland, addresses the unknowable, multivalent, illusionary, psychedelic and hallucinatory nature of reality and representation. Mao, by contrast, with its picture of a crowd forming into an image of the iconic Chinese leader, asserts the political power of the collective or multitude when concentrated into one ideal. IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S, with its conspicuous dollar-sign pictorially written into its title, addresses capitalism and the contentious leader of the so-called ‘free’ world - America - through a concentration on its central cultural stereotypes; the cowboy, the soldier, movies, gun violence and the great nation’s pervasive cult of the macho-individualist. In this respect, IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S is a painting that stands in clear opposition to the painting Mao, and invokes a theme that Polke would revisit with vehemence in his later paintings of the both the Ronald Reagan era (See Das Problem Europa,) and the post-9/11 years of the George W Bush presidency. In their own way, therefore, each of these three, epic 1972 paintings, represents both an exposure and a representation of, established stereotypes and conventions of seeing, looking and understanding the world - both visually and, more importantly for Polke at this time, politically.
Exposing the fixed structures and conventions of seeing and interpreting the world to be artifices, Polke reinforced this idea of images, icons and stereotypes providing a false or restrictive view of the world confined by habit and convention, by, in the early 1970s, removing these fabric paintings from their stretchers. He did this so that, in contrast to conventional pictures, these three vast and ambitious fabric paintings could hang free, unfettered by stretchers or even the traditional square, flat format of picture-plane. Instead, hanging solely from a single rail across the top of each work, they became banner or curtain-like objects that both suggested domestic life and physically asserted themselves as free-flowing objects in the real world. More to the point, their multi-layered imagery now also moved, fluctuated and changed in a manner that was a closer approximation of the true, unstable nature of reality and the perpetual flux of life. Of these three 1972 paintings, only the Museum of Modern Art’s Mao has however, retained its unstretched format of the mid-1970s. Some time after his first solo show in America at the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York, 1982, where IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S and Alice im Wunderland were hung alongside one another in their free-hanging curtain form, Polke had both these paintings restretched over traditional canvas stretchers to once again become more static and iconic images. In 1995, Alice im Wunderland was, again under Polke’s supervision, restretched a third time.
Clearly highly regarded by the artist, IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S, Alice im Wunderland and Mao are works that collectively made a loud statement of intent. Each was executed in the immediate aftermath of Polke’s decision in 1972 to live an unconventional life with an ever-changing assortment of visiting friends, fellow artists, societal outcasts and other countercultural warriors on a farm in Willich - a small town close to Dusseldorf and Krefeld. Polke’s choice of location for this farm provided the working space he needed and was in part, a deliberate provocation to the conventional bourgeois way of life in this sleepy rural town. This was, after all, the period when Polke and his friends broke into the second leg of his travelling retrospective in the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle to add further, stretcher-less, earlier paintings and photographs behind a highly contentious sign that he had erected in the museum space that read ‘Kunst macht frei’ (Art makes you free).
In their groundbreaking book on this extraordinarily rich and radical period in Polke’s life, Petra Lange-Berndt and Dietmar Rübel described the life and aims of the Willich farmhouse as: ‘Life in the plural, in flux, in a pack, the utopia of indeterminacy, life in action with political provocation, subculture, drugs, camp and cultural revolution, sex club culture, and of course the whole media circus: in the 1970s, the inhabitants of Willich tested whether it was possible to escape the standardized life...’ (P. Lange-Berndt, D. Rübel, ‘Multiple Maniacs’, in Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois: Comrades and Contemporaries. The 1970s, Cologne, 2011, p. 75).
Towering over the viewer with its imposing image of a cowboy and two men of violence - one toting a heavy machine gun - IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S is one of the first of several painterly commentaries on US politics in Central and South America and Vietnam that Polke would make during his time of living in Willich. Foreshadowing Richard Prince’s own undermining of the cowboy archetype in his appropriating of the Marlboro Man pictures in the 1980s, this painting, along with Polke’s diptych Lucky Luke and his Friend, his inventively entitled Cameleonardo da Willich or the front and back covers of Polke’s 1976 Bienal de Sao Paulo catalogue, all question the pervasive and enduring presence of this Western stereotype. As too, for example, does the artist’s 1975 painting of the noble spectre of the Native American, Indianer. This postmodernist deconstruction of an All-American language of imagery and advertising on contemporary culture was to reach its apogee in the large free-hanging paper picture entitled Supermarkets belonging to Polke’s ten Wir Kleinbürger – Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen series of paintings of 1976 – a painting which attacked the entire mass-culture invasion of the American supermarket into European life by showing a multi-layered image of a supermarket packed full with numerous Superman figures busy shopping.
Executed on a rich brown felt fabric ground, that, in its raw materiality emanates, like a horse blanket perhaps, a sense of the rough honesty and rugged, outdoor life of the cowboy, IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S physically manifests a persuasive sense of the ‘hard-but-true’ cliché perpetuated by the enduring myth of the American cowboy. The seemingly arbitrary footprints and smears of golden-yellow and white paint around and over this demonstrably material surface reinforce this sense of tough outdoor living, but, like everything in Polke’s painting, these too are but an artifice. The image of the two sinister-looking figures for example, has been executed in black using a stencil so that it appears like a print embedded in the surface of the felt. By contrast, the painted image of the John Wayne-like cowboy in the foreground has been rendered in a combination of pastel drawing through a stencil and a decorative white-dot pattern reminiscent of theatre lights and of Polke’s earlier rasterbilder. The source of this image is also somewhat arbitrary, coming from a 1970s cartoon by the underground artist Rick Griffin reproduced in a surfer comic. Entitled ‘Murphy et ses copains’, this cowboy figure appeared in the magazine Actuel which Polke appears to have read regularly throughout the 1970s and which provided sources for several of his paintings.
The apparently random layering of the imagery of IK MACH DASS SCHON JE$S, its abstract mark-making and its text, all combine to make a powerful and aggressive pictorial statement whose title - meaning ‘I’ll take care of it, Jess’ - suggests a rousing to action. Whether this manly decision to take action is intended as a laudable act of individualism and leadership on the part of an heroic cowboy figure, or as a deplorable and oppressive, gangster-like recourse to violence, is left open and ambiguous by the apparently arbitrary nature of the layering of the picture’s mixture of noble and aggressive imagery. This deliberate ambiguity is a typical move by Polke who, in this magnificent work, intentionally leaves it to the viewer to decide how they wish to respond to this great American symbol.