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White Gray Black

Sigmar Polke (German, 1941–2010)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German painter. He moved with his family in 1953 from what was then East Germany to Willich, near Mönchengladbach, formerly West Germany. After completing an apprenticeship as a painter of stained glass, he began studying in 1961 under Gerhard Hoehme and Karl-Otto Götz at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. Together with Konrad Fischer-Lueg and Gerhard Richter (who was also a pupil of Götz), in 1963 Polke launched Capitalist Realism in response to Pop art, exhibiting the first works in this genre in Düsseldorf. In paintings such as Biscuits (enamel on canvas, 800×750 mm, 1964; Munich, Lenbachhaus) Polke took as his motifs such ordinary food items as chocolate, sausages or biscuits, isolating them and apparently depriving them of their tactility in order to elevate them to the status of aesthetic signs. At around the same time he began producing a series of sketched faces and stylized mannequin-like figures influenced by the work of Francis Picabia, as in Lovers II (varnish and oil on canvas, 1.90×1.42 m, 1965; London, Doris and Charles Saatchi priv. col., see Zurich exh. cat., p. 61).

Such Pop-related images, pictured in various combinations and in a number of techniques, became from this time standard elements of Polke’s work. They continued to feature, for example, in two series of paintings that he instituted in 1963, Grid Pictures and Fabric Pictures, in both of which he played with codes, disguises and processes by which familiar things were made to seem strange. The Grid Pictures, such as Vase II (1965; Düsseldorf, Kstmus.), were painted with the aid of epidiascopes and slide projections, usually from crude half-toned newspaper photographs; this technical procedure may have been prompted by the example of Andy Warhol’s screenprinted paintings based on similar source material. The scattered dots in more complex works such as Crowd (distemper on canvas, 1.80×1.95 m, 1969; Bonn, Städt. Kstmus.) form a virtually abstract pattern that makes the imagery almost invisible when viewed from near the surface. Graphic alterations help to increase this sense of unfamiliarity, blurring the boundary between the objective reproduction of reality and the subjective production of art.

A different process was used for the Fabric Pictures. In these Polke used printed fabrics, which in their triviality reveal the tastelessness of everyday life, as background patterns for gestures and motifs drawn from earlier art and especially from mainstream modernism. Irreconcilable images are brought together, as in Dürer Hare (distemper on fabric, 800×600 mm, 1968; Bern, Toni Gerber priv col., see Tübingen exh. cat., p. 68), in which a hare as drawn by Dürer nestles in the decorative pattern on a piece of cloth. In works such as Untitled (Referring to Max Ernst) (1981; Bonn, Städt. Kstmus.) he continued to appropriate images and techniques from other artists and found materials.

Such examinations of accepted opinions about works from the history of art also prompted Polke to produce pictures in which he quoted characteristic features of modern art and commented on them by giving them the appearance of trademarks, as in the exaggerated and crude brushstrokes in Modern Art (distemper on canvas, 1.50×1.25 m, 1968; Berlin, Anna and Otto Block priv. col., see Zurich exh. cat., p. 59).

In other paintings, such as Left Hand Lines (dispersion on lurex, 1.55×1.25 m, 1968; Bonn, Städt. Kstmus.), Polke introduced another variation of his attack on conventional ideas about individuality and innate creativity by altering the lines of his own palm. As if to escape sole responsibility as the author of his own work, he even presented some pictures as dictated by forces beyond his control, as in Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Top Right Corner Black (enamel on canvas, 1.5×1.2 m, 1969; Eindhoven, Stedel. Van Abbemus.).

In 1973 Polke initiated a series entitled Original and Forgery (exh. Bonn, Städt. Kstmus., 1974), in which he both summarized and extended his concern with questions of evaluation. The series, prompted by the theft in 1973 of a painting by Rembrandt from the Münster Kunstverein, included work in various media: small black and white photographs using the title of the series; large paintings representing, in some cases, stolen works of art; commentary in the form of small collages; rows of mirror fragments and neon tubes; and a text written in collaboration with Achim Duchow, Franz Liszt Likes Coming Round to my House to Watch Television. By such means Polke questioned and re-evaluated concepts of reproduction, copy, imitation and mimicry; authorship and copyright; and the fine line between change and reinterpretation bordering on vandalism.

From 1970 to 1971 Polke lectured at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Hamburg, and he was made professor there in 1975. After his recovery from a severe illness he travelled widely for a few years, first in Pakistan and Afghanistan and later in Mexico and Australia, where he was confronted by myths and strange images to which he alluded in double-exposed photographs. In the 1980s he concentrated on large gestural paintings such as The Copyist (2.6×2.0 m, 1982; London, Doris and Charles Saatchi priv. col., see Zurich exh. cat., p. 117), in which he worked both with traditional materials and with chemicals, varnishes and mixtures of pigments, solvents and toxins. Streams of varnish wash into each other, accentuated by harsh colours such as orange and bilious green, giving the impression of a veil held over a visionary apparition or hallucination, with images superimposed or showing through. Rusting and other chemical reactions caused by the mixture of such different materials introduce other textures, materials and surfaces, with the artist himself acting not just as the maker of the marks on the canvas but also as a witness to the physical process of formation. The viewer is encouraged to take an active role in dismantling the hidden layers (both literal and metaphorical) of each picture. Polke’s love of experiment, of abrupt stylistic changes and of contradiction, irony and mocking distance thus remained essential to his uncategorizable and innovative art.

Beatrice v. Bismarck
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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