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Sigmar Polke
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essay Sigmar Polke, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Sigmar Polke has constantly defied aesthetic boundaries in his work, extending the visual vocabularies of painting, photography, and printmaking through a mercurial working process. His investigations into the effects that can be achieved by embracing a vast range of materials, pictorial sources, and art practices have been highly influential to successive generations of artists. Within his wealth of material can also be found mystery—he is frequently called enigmatic, elliptical, obscure. Over the past forty years, he has created a body of work that continues to provoke and entrance, marking a significant bridge between the twentieth century and the twenty-first.

Polke was born in 1941 in Oels, Silesia (the eastern part of Germany at the time), now Olesnica, Poland. His father was trained as an architect and descended from ironworkers who had decorated Baroque churches. When Polke was twelve, his family immigrated to West Germany. At eighteen, he apprenticed with a glass painter, learning a centuries-old art form that was experiencing a revival due to the need for restoration after the war. From 1961 to 1967, he was enrolled at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, an environment rife with ideas.1 The highly influential artist Joseph Beuys taught there from 1961 to 1972, and its students in the 1960s were eager to bring to their work a new sense of the social and democratic. Many felt the reverberations of American Pop Art, with its appropriation of commercial images, and the more international movement of Fluxus, which drew from performative impulses and pedestrian, often found materials. It was during this period that Polke, together with fellow students Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg,2 cofounded a movement that was coined “Capitalist Realism” in 1963.3 The term was a rhetorical play on Socialist Realism, then the official style of East Germany. Polke’s paintings of the period embraced banal subject matter and verbal and pictorial clichés of advertising. His “dot paintings,” or Rasterbilder, produced between 1963 and 1969, were hand-painted renditions of mechanically generated images (mainly found photographs), and were both a parody of and commentary on the slickness of mechanical reproduction appearing in American Pop.

Polke has always been an avid documenter, and has used photography as a tool to record both his surroundings and events performed for the camera. In his earliest photographs, such as Bamboostange Liebt Zollstockstern (Bamboo Pole Loves Folding Ruler Star) (1968–1969), he continued to embrace the quotidian subject matter of his paintings. The series of fifteen deadpan black-and-white photographs was taken with a Rollei, a box camera that produces 120-millimeter square negatives. Polke’s camera had a faulty shutter, which could yield somewhat hallucinatory double exposures.4 Arrayed in three rows, the photographs depict a curious lexicon of commonplace objects—a ruler, a pitcher spilling paper “liquid,” a pair of scissors suspended over a glass of water—that through the artist’s deft staging appear to take on magical properties. The images are imparted with his signature merging of the playful and the serious, and though seemingly straightforward, emerge as eerily iconic. In the 1970s, Polke began an intensive exploration of photography and film, traveling in France, Brazil, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. The rich and innovative work from this period would influence his activities in other media as he explored the mutability of imagery via the chemical world of the darkroom.

As he matured as a painter, Polke increasingly began to draw upon allusion as subject in his work, invoking not only the here and now of contemporary life but also history, art history, allegory, and myth. His experimentation with photographic chemicals in the 1970s laid the groundwork for a body of paintings in the 1980s that were grandly scaled pictures made on a panoply of synthetic fabrics with metallurgic substances and chemicals that changed color with variances in temperature and humidity. He also began to explore the effects of painting on translucent surfaces, creating a tour de force body of large-scale paintings executed on skins of synthetic fabric in lieu of traditional canvas. His use of common textiles was not new: earlier paintings had combined representational imagery with the existing textures and patterns of such supports as tablecloths, upholstery fabrics, blankets, and dish towels. On the sheer polyester of the later paintings, which revealed the grid of wooden stretcher bars beneath, Polke layered washes of lacquer, artificial resin, and varnish. These abstractions became a veil for an arsenal of appropriated material—the artist is an omnivorous collector of images—ranging from early European engravings and illustrations to graphics drawn from contemporary print media and advertisements.

In 1994, the Walker Art Center acquired a comprehensive archive of prints and other editioned works spanning the first thirty years of Polke’s career. This growing collection comprises a remarkable body of work, including prints, photographs, three-dimensional constructions, artist’s books, and other special publications. Just as Polke’s paintings have been a means for him to explore his experimental attitude toward materials, his editions are fashioned from an eclectic array of pigments on surfaces that include velour, imitation leather, and wallpaper. He has also made forays into sculptural editions, as in the 1969 multiple Apparat, mit dem eine Kartoffel eine andere umkreisen kann (Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another), an offhanded homage to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic bicycle wheel, in which Polke affixed a found object—in this case a potato—to the underside of a stool, where it circles a second potato with the aid of a simple motor.5 Many of his editions also incorporate photography, both in their imagery and in the use of photographically derived printing techniques, as in Freundinnen (Girl Friends) (1967), an early “dot” print based on an image enlarged from the newspaper, then commercially reprinted.

One of the artist’s seminal print works is the photo-based series Higher Beings Command (1967). The images in the portfolio initially seem to suggest a narrative, though their relation to one another is ambiguous.6 A number of the prints reference the palm tree, an image Polke cunningly constructs from such unlikely materials as cotton, glass, bread dough, buttons, a glove, and the human body. He appears in action in at least five of these prints, inviting the series to be read as both a performance and a fragmented self-portrait, one that might provide insight into the mind of an artist who has continued to elude, fascinate, and expand the possibilities of his craft.

  1. At the Kunstakademie, Polke studied primarily with Karl Otto Götz and Gerhard Hoehme. By the end of the 1950s, German art academies were dominated by German versions of post-Surrealist automatist movements such as Tachisme (exemplified by the 1953 Group, of which Hoehme was a part), and Art Informel.

  2. Konrad Lueg (1939–1996), a painter, also had an illustrious career as an art dealer under the name Konrad Fischer.

  3. In October 1963, Lueg and Richter staged a performance in a Düsseldorf furniture store, where they positioned themselves in lounge chairs perched on pedestals. The action was entitled “Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism.” See Karl Ruhrburg, “Revolt and Acceptance—Düsseldorf in the Sixties,” in Klaus Schrenk, ed., Upheavals, Manifestos, Manifestations: Conceptions in Art at the Beginning of the Sixties, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich, (Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 1984), 86–97.

  4. For a discussion of Polke’s earliest photographic techniques and imagery, see Maria Morris Hambourg, “Polke’s Recipes for Arousing the Soul,” in Paul Schimmel, ed., Sigmar Polke Photoworks: When Pictures Vanish, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), 39–50.

  5. Potatoes are a food whose generative capacity fascinated the artist. He used them as the subject of a number of early works, including Kartoffelhaus (Potato House) (1967), which he documented in photographs.

  6. The images in the portfolio are based on photographs taken by Polke and Chris Kohlhöfer between 1966 and 1968.

Engberg, Siri. “Sigmar Polke.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center