In his paintings of the 1960s, from one work to the next, Sigmar Polke swung back and forth from the mundane to the exotic, the super-dull to the extra-ordinary. First he painted three crisp white shirts for a bureaucrat to wear to the office, and then, romantic couples kissing above a desert island. One moment, a cupboard door, or a bar of soap, the next, palm trees and holiday beaches. A large painting shows a woman eating bread and butter, and another depicts a jungle and a sunset. This was Polke’s way of showing how connected reality and fantasy were in post-war Germany: the office workers and housewives of Cologne and Dusseldorf kept being so productive because of the dreams they were sold. With this pattern of the banal and the extraordinary, how do we make sense of Häuserfront?
The most obvious answer is that this is another of Polke’s reflections on the mundane. A sixteen-story housing block rises from the bottom to the top of the canvas, flanked by three trees to the right and some bushes to the left. On each floor, we see a regular distribution of three square windows one side of the block, and two on the other. We can’t really make out balconies or other details. This is drab post-war architecture, and the life planned out for the residents, we could imagine, is equally dull.
One contrasting image for Häuserfront might be the drawing that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe made in 1921 for the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper for Berlin, now in the Museum of Modern Art. Mies imagined an immense structure built with steel and clad in shimmering glass. The various components of the structure were at different angles to one another, and the main skyscraper’s walls met at a sharp acute angle. Mies never got to build this (even though the world is populated now by similar buildings) and twenty-five years after Mies imagined the skyscraper, German cities lay in ruins. Following the aerial bombardments of World War II, concrete towers like the one Polke depicted in Häuserfront rose up across the country. The contrast of pre-war dream and post-war reality, Mies’s drawing and Polke’s painting - is stark: steel and glass give way for concrete, a huge tower diminishes to sixteen stories, sharp corners become right-angles. Difference makes way for repetition.
By choosing a subject like the new housing blocks, Polke was acknowledging an aspect of then-recent German history that many other people wanted to repress, namely the impact of the aerial bombardments on the built environment. His friend Gerhard Richter did this too in his 1963 paintings of bombers and in his 1968 series of city paintings, rendered in gestural strokes that made the cities appear like bombsites. A couple of years before Polke made Häuserfront, Richter painted Administrative Building which also conveys the dullness and regularity of the new post-war urban landscape. Two years after Häuserfront, Richter made a series of paintings based on images of architectural models, like Townscape SL, 1969, and these also represent post-war German cities as grey and dull.
There are almost no photographs of Polke in the studio making work in the 1960s, but one shows him painting Häuserfront . The canvas is on a horizontal surface, and Polke is leaning over it, applying paint with a small brush. The main grid of dots would have been laid down through a stencil, and he used a brush in the way we see in the photograph to join the dots together. The photograph is quite strange, and may have been staged, because Polke is smartly dressed, wearing a white shirt and dark suit, when surely he must have worn more casual clothes to paint. I have always loved the fact that he rested his paint pot on the canvas rather than on a nearby table or the floor, because by doing this, he risked paint dribbling down the rim and onto his picture. Polke would not have minded, of course, because as painstaking as his process was, he allowed for errors. Look across the surface of Häuserfront and these glitches are here and there. Some of the dots that outline the square windows are larger than others. Sometimes the brush-painted areas joining up the grid of dots are messy rather than precise. The imperfections in the painting process were one way that Polke expressed a kind of individuality. It is interesting to think about this quirkiness in the context of the image of a housing block, because the regularity of the architecture – and the expectation that all the residents should accept the same size windows and walls – could have seemed to stamp out the promise of such individuality.
But these glitches and imperfections are not the only extraordinary aspect of this painting. To my mind, the building’s outer edges seem to rise at slight angles to the edges of the canvas, so that the whole structure appears to expand outwards as it sours to the sky. The more you look at it, the less the building looks like a boring oblong block. Rather it seems more dynamic, calling to mind much more recent structures, like Rafael Vinoly’s ‘walkie talkie’ in London. A year before he painted Häuserfront, Polke made another raster painting with a series of high rise buildings along the bottom edge. When I last saw the painting, I didn’t concentrate on the buildings, but the swirling colours above them, which, so the title claims, are Flying Saucers. But looking back at the work now, I can see that the same kind of block appears here as is later monumentalised in Häuserfront. Flying Saucers shows that as he depicted concrete tower blocks, Polke also imagined something other-worldy, in the very same space.
So to return to the first question: how do we account for Häuserfront in the context of Polke’s exploration of the mundane and extraordinary? Perhaps he imagined these new buildings as part of a new world whose character could not be predicted. Perhaps he recognised that within and against the regularity of those grids of windows, creative life could thrive, and strange things might happen. Artists after Polke have explored this line of thinking, and it is interesting to think that the weirdness of Häuserfront might connect to Pierre Huyghe’s incredible 1999 film Les Grands Ensembles, where two tower blocks appear to communicate with each other by flashing their lights, or Anri Sala’s Long Sorrow (2005), where Jemeel Moondoc, a free jazz saxophonist, is suspended on a platform outside the window of a tower that is part of the Märkisches Viertel complex in Berlin – built exactly when Häuserfront was painted, which grew to become one of the largest housing estates in Berlin with 17,000 apartments. Moondoc appears to hover over the complex, improvising with the sounds of the city, as people wander by below.