Sigmar Polke said, once: “Why doesn’t the public turn its attention to the potato, where ultimate fulfilment awaits?” This colossus of post war art practiced what he preached, making a variety of potato-based artworks against the bleak backdrop of post-war Germany. One of which, the 1960s Kartoffelhaus (or “potato house”) is currently, incongrugously, on show in one of London’s loveliest exhibition spaces, the winter garden at Michael Werner Gallery.
Polke’s turn to the potato came after he noticed a prize tuber in the cellar of his house one day. After which he dreamed up this neat, gabled, garden-shed like building, with its gridded slats of wood for walls, and potatoes nailed to every crossover. While it’s no good for keeping the rain out, the house is designed for maximum practicality as an artwork: Polke instructed that it should be flat-packed and re-constructed, with local spuds, in every location it’s shown.
The house is a knowing joke, delivered with a straight face. Its beige uniformity mirrors the drab conditions in which it was created. But it’s an organic object too, with different sproutings and irregularities on each potato; the curatorial advice for showing the work is to let the potatoes being used sprout, and only replace them when they start rotting.
More broadly, aren’t potatoes themselves bland as well as wholesome - a basic, staple food rather than a showstopper? Certainly, the humbleness of the materials and construction bely their surroundings: a lovely wood-panelled room in the middle of Mayfair. Which somehow becomes part of the joke: the potato house would work less well in a sober, austere white cube.
Upstairs at this exhibition, you’ll find a variety of drawings on paper: Polke’s late-1960s plans for other potato-based installations, among other grand objects. The show notes draw a comparison between his pencilled plans for unrealisable schemes he didn’t have the budget for and those of Leonardo da Vinci, 500 years earlier.
The German artist was fascinated by da Vinci, with his war machines and wings; his absurd potato plans are therefore an ironic nod, rather than a backhanded compliment. Though I have to say, my response to the whole thing is to laugh. Polke, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have minded.
Sigmar Polke - Objects: Real and Imagined is at Michael Werner Gallery (London). January 22 - March 21 2020