Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)


Sigmar Polke was born in 1941 in Oels in Silesia (now Olesnica, Poland), but in 1953 his parents fled and settled in the German Democratic Republic. Following an apprenticeship in a stained glass factory in Dusseldorf, he got into the Kunstakademie (Arts Academy) in 1961 from where he graduated in 1968. With fellow students Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg (who would become an art dealer under the name of Konrad Fischer), he founded Kapitalistischen Realismus, or Capitalist Realism, in 1963. This was in reaction to Socialist Realism – which had been imposed on eastern bloc countries by the Soviet Empire - but also to the American Pop Art of Warhol and Rauschenberg, which was seen to be promoting the consumer society that at the time was expanding rapidly in the German Democratic Republic.

Sigmar Polke described his movement as neo-dada in 1964, and from that time on, subversion and disillusion with political, societal and artistic ideologies - and with the 'two-Germany' situation -would be expressed through an 'anti-art'. This was extraordinarily variable in its unrestrained choice of materials, techniques and the way in which they were used; and the aim of it was not to create beauty but rather, 'bad painting'. This anti-art thus did the exact opposite of materialism, with a liking for poor quality tools and materials that the artist might amalgamate together on top of one single piece, making his works fragile and difficult to preserve over time.

In his pictorial work, Sigmar Polke turned out to be an inveterate experimenter. He took canvas, paper or metal as a surface, but also different printed soft furnishing fabrics that he could assemble. He played with the surface: canvas could be made translucent by adding resin, and he sometimes painted the subject on the back of the canvas. From the 1980s he applied up to eight layers of laquer on decorative fabric to obtain a mysterious transparence which thus gave a plastic function to the stretcher bars supporting the canvas; the subtle and cloudy effect being heightened further when colour was dispersed between layers, as in his Triptych (1996), which is irridescent with a whole spectrum of colours.

Indeed, he used very varied substances. Curator Harald Szeeman said: "Aluminium-based mixtures, iron, potassium or manganese...are added to traditional paint, lacquers and pure pigments. Polke takes mischievous delight in mixing turpentine, alcohol and methanol, but also lampblack or wax to seal the most corrosive and abrasive lacquers." He added: "He devoted a lot of time and care in applying pigments, he let paint rust by scattering iron filings in it[...]." Beeswax and even arsenic were not absent from his arsenal, which was also supplemented by products from his practice in photography that he had taught himself since the 1970s. From the 1980s he developed the use of photosensitive substances to cover the surface, obtaining a picture that changed according to the light and levels of humidity (Venice Biennale, 1986). The weather was thus co-author of the work alongside the artist, becoming an echo of the fragility and precariousness of our society.

His taste for experimentation also touched upon the making of patterns. Very early on, he introduced images in his paintings made up of hatched dots, the transposition of greatly enlarged photographic clichés that he found in printed material devoted to consumption and leisure. It was a satire on the duplicity of the abundant distribution of advertising images, and a ruthless vision of the world as though it had been closely examined in order to eliminate the non-essentials and reveal it as it is (Freundinnen or 'Friends', 1965; Interior, 1966).

Again, photography - or even a screenshot - provided him with images that he manipulated to the point of partially destroying them or transforming them to end up with a fragmentary narrative that was often semi-concealed in the painting made of multiple layers, to such an extent that it appears as a hallucination or a dreamed image. His sources came from trivial everyday imagery, but just as readily from various styles such as Romanticism or Expressionism etc.. (figures or motifs in the style of Goya, Max Ernst, Chagall etc..).

Although meticulous in his research and execution, Sigmar Polke was not reluctant to introduce errors and chance into his finished work, for example letting paint run on the fabric as though moved by a parapsychological or telepathic phenomenon (Stühlerücken, 1981). The subject was also reused by the artist (eg Tischruecken 1981, Die Schere or 'Scissors', 1982).

This tremendous freedom in all aspects of creation gave birth to a multi-faceted pictorial art, quite openly mixing figurative work and abstraction. Whilst this inventive profusion aims to get rid of the idea of personal style, it is, however, possible to detect the thread running through it: Sigmar Polke's apparently playful approach implements a visual yet also philosophical revolution, inviting us to dwell upon what really hides behind our visible world.

"Any event, artistic or even historic, can turn against itself to the point of signifying the exact opposite of what it was originally supposed to express."

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