The high scaffold in Watchtower could be a hunters' blind but also whispers of the guards' post—perhaps on the East-West border within a still-divided Germany, perhaps on a concentration-camp fence. Polke stenciled this skeletal frame in a series of paintings begun in 1984, varying the imagery around it. Here, he clothes the watchtower in a baleful phosphorescent glow, which sends up a hollow arm to catch the tower's top.
In the 1960s Polke had produced what he called "Capitalist Realism," a German variant of Pop art. An element of Pop survives in Watchtower's support, made of commercial yard goods printed, respectively, with a cheerful floral and with a weave or mesh. Refusing consistency, however, Polke combines these with both the sinister tower image and an abstraction (which, with its alternately smooth and spidery lines, suggests more than one painting process). Images and styles from different eras, and associated with different moods and intentions, jostle and layer in the same work—a "postmodern" approach that Polke pioneered, and that a variety of artists explored in the 1980s.
Visual layering brings a layering of sense. In Watchtower, painted and printed images compete for visibility; if the watchtower is haunted and haunting, the prints connote a banal dailiness. It is as though different registers of consciousness and of memory were struggling for resolution.
Roxana Marcoci: Sigmar Polke, one of Germany's most important contemporary artists, belongs to a generation marked both by the Second World War and by the excesses of West Germany's "economic miracle." In Watchtower, Polke layers acrylic paints, artificial resins and brightly colored commercial fabrics to form a jarring backdrop for a spectral watchtower—an image to which he returned repeatedly during the 1980s.
Polke's layering is a visual metaphor for the ways memory works—joining bits and pieces of the past in often surprising juxtapositions. Is this watchtower a reminder of Nazi concentration camps or is it a relic of the armed border that divided East and West Germany in the Communist era? Or perhaps it is merely an elevated platform allowing hunters to scout deer—an image close to the romantic sensibility of nineteenth–century German landscape painting? Polke seems to suggest that our memories of the past are constantly in flux, evolving in ways that cannot be represented in a permanent monument.