Plastik-Wannen (Plastic Tubs) is one of a small number of paintings on plain, inexpensive canvas that Polke made of everyday objects between 1963 and 1964. This was before he started the two groups of works for which his output of the 1960s is best known: his paintings on decorative fabrics, and the ‘Rasterbilder,’ his famed replications of printed images. Polke’s other paintings of everyday objects include images of a half-wrapped bar of chocolate, three red socks, three white shirts, three biscuits, a bar of soap, sausages, and a white cupboard door. These are all seemingly mundane items, hitherto barely worthy of artistic attention – yet in the early 1960s, German painters turned to just such domestic objects as a reflection of the beginnings of consumer culture in the context of post-war recovery. Interestingly, Plastik-Wannen was made shortly after Gerhard Richter’s painting Faltbarer Trockner (Folding Dryer), based upon an advertisement showing a housewife hanging up clothes on a new drying rack. Polke and Richter were well acquainted, and Polke would undoubtedly have seen the work.
Like a drying rack, plastic tubs were newly-available household must-haves. Plastik-Wannen includes a bin, a baby bath, a washing-up bowl, and three food containers. Inexpensive yet remarkably durable, these items saved money and time. They were easily stored and frequently produced in attractive colors, designed to brighten the home when displayed on shelves. For Roland Barthes, writing in 1957, plastic was ‘the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.’
The shirts, biscuits, socks, and other ‘ordinary things’ in Polke’s 1963-64 paintings are all painted to suggest two-dimensionality, even perhaps with a deliberate crudeness. What makes Plastik-Wannen singularly interesting are the highly varied levels of completion and unfinish made evident across its surface. In the plastic tubs, Polke demonstrates considerable skill, capturing their volume and allowing light to play across their gently curved surfaces. If one examines the handles of the yellow tubs, for instance, one sees how Polke has mixed in whites to show light glinting gently off the plastic, and browns to emphasize areas of shade. In rendering his prosaic plastic tubs, Polke shows the same deft skill and attention to detail as a classical European portraitist, painstakingly rendering light falling across a subject’s face, or elaborate folds within a tumbling cloth. Perhaps Polke had in mind Albert Renger-Patzch’s photograph of metal pots, Aluminiumtöpfe, Warenhaus Schocken, Zwickau, 1926, published in Die Welt ist Schon, where the photographer similarly captured the play of light on curvy kitchenware. To create these carefully rendered pots, Polke chose his colors carefully: while upon first glance, the painting seems to be made with only pink, yellow, and blue, careful looking reveals many different shades of each color.
And yet, simultaneously, the painting exists in a state of deliberate incompletion. It appears almost like an exercise, abandoned before it’s concluded without time taken to tidy it up. Polke used pencil to plot out the composition, but did not erase the lines: in several places they remain as an intriguing, even incongruous presence. He set the plastic tubs against two blue squares in the top left of the painting, and one pink rectangle in the bottom left, and while the borders of these areas appear relatively crisp in the majority of the composition, there are places where the color exuberantly overwhelms the line. At right, an entire vertical quarter of the painting is left blank (except for those intriguing pencil lines and a few smudges of blue and pink); most curiously, the space reserved for the ‘plastic tub’ in the top left blue square is left shockingly empty. One must assume that a sixth vessel was intended to join the other tubs in the painting, but Polke has left the space as an astonishing void.
In recent years, curators have asked new questions about the kind of things Polke painted in these years, their historical significance, and the part they played in post-war German culture. These enquiries are connected to the work of design historians like Paul Betts, who, in his book The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design, devoted an entire chapter, ‘The Nierentisch Nemesis’, to the trend for kidney-shaped tables in the 1950s and 60s. Betts makes the point that the appeal of Nierentisch design ‘was partly linked to its ability to help forget a heinous past.’ He quotes a German writer who recalled that ‘Everywhere were curves, swollen shapes, pendulous forms. With them the evil jagged edges of the swastika, the Hitler-salute, and the SS’s angular graphic script were to be forgiven and forgotten by the grace of the rounded shapes of beetles, mussels, and kidneys.’ Polke was well-aware of the trend for kidney-shaped design objects, and used the form in various works like Urlaubsbild, 1966, and Stoffbild mit Nierenform, 1969. In their sinuous curves, the outlines of Polke’s plastic tubs recall the forms of those kidney-shaped tables, and it seems plausible that they serve a purpose related to Betts’ analysis. When young Germans bought shining new plastic tubs in the early 60s, they were choosing not to use the old baby-baths, bowls and pots which had survived the war, to be handed down from their parents. Instead, the younger generation opted for smoother, wipe-clean new materials: an echo of a larger cultural need to wipe away the past, and begin anew.
This wider significance of something so ordinary as plastic tubs provokes new conclusions about the way Polke made Plastik-Wannen. His decision to leave the composition seemingly incomplete suggests his doubts about the job that the plastic tubs were there to perform, and a wider scepticism about the ideology of progress, efficiency, consumption—and forgetting—that West Germany was founded upon. This scepticism would find its way into various later works: for instance, the paintings based on his collection of magnified printing errors that Polke found in mainstream newspapers and magazines. In a country where everything now aspired to be slick and smart, Polke drew attention to glitches, and this tendency in his work has its origin, it’s fair to say, in the wide space occupying the left of Plastik-Wannen.