German artist Sigmar Polke (born 1941) has boldly ventured to creative realms where few have dared to tread. As a result, he has had a great influence on young American artists, especially in the 1980s. With an ironic, mocking sense of humor, he parodied artistic movements early in his career and even created his own style called "Capitalist Real ism," which commented on German culture and society. A trailblazer in more ways than one, Polke revolutionized painting in the second half of his career by using non-art materials and chemical substances to "paint" canvases. These magical and mutable pieces earned Polke the title of "alchemical artist."
Polke was born in Oels, Germany, on February 13, 1941. As a 12-year-old boy, Polke escaped from East to West Berlin in 1953 by faking sleep on a subway car. The formative experience of crossing the border would have a major impact on the content and style of his art in later years. After apprenticing as a glass painter for a brief time, he went on to study at the Dusseldorf Art Academy from 1961 to 1967, where he became deeply influenced by his teacher Joseph Beuys. As Robert Hughes wrote in Time, "He seems to have got two big things from Beuys: first, the ides of the artist as clown, shaman and alchemist; second, a healthy reluctance to believe in the final value of categories of style. Hence his early parodies of the sacred modes of Modernism." Polke and two fellow students, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Fischer-Leug, formed a movement of artistic style called "Capitalism Realism," a term they used ironically to refer to the modern art of the West.
1960s: Capitalist Realism and Artistic Parody
Capitalist Realism was the merging of Pop Art style with images emblematic of a postwar German consumer society. Polke, although aware of American Pop art, was not interested in the conventions of graphic design. Rather than translating graphic advertising images into painted forms, Polke's, Capitalist Realism "was about objects of desire, seen from a distance," as Hughes put it. The artist's main focus in the early years was to portray these objects of desire, and he did so in a flat somewhat unappealing way. The mundane, and often trite objects portrayed in Polke's paintings of the era—cakes, plastic tubs, liverwurst—were represented in a less flashy way than the substance of American Pop, but they possessed a political significance relating to the historical context in which Polke was situated. These objects, common in Polke's current world, were symbolic of the split between East and West Germany, and their presence on canvas called attention to their absence on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall. Hughes wrote, "The split between East and West, for ordinary Germans, lay along the ruts of consumption rather than the peaks of rhetoric." Works like Plastik Wannen (Tubs, 1964), which uses the plastic wash basins and food containers that were hard to get at the time in Eastern bloc countries as its subject, pokes fun at consumerism, while revealing the reality of a culture still suffering from the deprivations of war. These early works mark a break with the abstract expressionist style that was prevalent in prior years. Polke's paintings mirror life as it is directly experienced through human consciousness.
Whereas Polke's mid-'60s paintings were concerned with plain, immediate, ordinary subjects found in the everyday world, his paintings from the latter part of the decade take up art as their theme, often in a humorous way. Polke responded with a certain sense of irony to American Pop art. His huge raster grids were inspired by Roy Lichenstein's bold Benday dots and Andy Warhol's early use of photographic transfer made its way into his work. Polke's mysterious juxtaposition of disparate images came from James Rosenquist, while Francis Pacabia's late paintings acted as important influences. Polke made fun of conceptual art in Solutions, 1967, and he satirized geometric abstraction in Modern Art, 1968. The same year, he produced Higher Beings Command: Paint an Angle!, a simple "L" drawn in black ink on a piece of notebook paper with the title typed below. His sense of humor is present in this work, for he did it "at a time when art circles in Germany, and the U.S. too, were still given to overheated 'spiritual' rhetoric about the transcendent powers of all sorts of abstract art… . As an art joke, it gets close to the mustache on Mona Lisa," Hughes wrote in a 1999 article in Time. Polke even suggested the silliness of his work in an installation called The Fifties, 1969, for which he placed 12 of his previous pieces over colored trelliswork. The idea was that even his own art had been tritely stylized to fit the times.
Conveyed Layers of Consciousness
In the '70s and '80s Polke brought disparate images together, reflecting poetic and bizarre movements of the mind. The mental states being conveyed were often drug-induced, and the artist masterfully brought the experience of such consciousness to his viewers. Polke took up Francis Picabia's technique of layering images one on top of another, and American artists like David Salle and Julian Schnabel sought to imitate him, while looking to breathe new life into their painting in the midst of Conceptualism.
In pieces like Alice in Wonderland, 1971, Polke's work overtly suggests altered states of consciousness and an awareness affected by marijuana. He has painted the scene from Lewis Carroll's story in which Alice talks to the hookah-smoking caterpillar, there are loud printed fabrics on the sides, over which he has painted a phantom white basketball player. As John Caldwell wrote in Sigmar Polke, "The artist has succeeded in creating a precise visual analogue of drugged consciousness, just as he did for the consumer goods that fixated much of the 1950s and early 1960s. The painting depicts the experience of watching sports on television after consuming a drug… ." Caldwell also said, "Polke's discovery of a way to depict several layers of consciousness at the same time by means of superimposing one or more figural motifs over a ground of printed fabric was one that he would return to repeatedly during the years to come." Again, in 1983 with Hallucinogen, Polke gave his viewers a direct experience of the human mind, not by portraying consumer items like cakes and wash bins, but by making on-lookers feel as if they are truly on psychedelic drugs. The artist's process of allowing chance reactions between his compositional materials to determine the look of the painting suggests a great deal about the effect of the art on the viewer. The uncontrolled randomness of the painting, with its patches of deep purple and clouds of dark, unidentifiable matter makes it both a groundbreaking piece of artwork, as well as an intense sensory experience for viewers.
Focused on Germany's Past
In the early '80s and '90s Polke's subject matter dealt primarily with Germany's Nazi past as well as the reality of people's lives during the country's split between East and West. The canvases became courageous testaments to the horror of the Holocaust, and Polke's entry into the use of non-art materials turned them into powerful experimental works with a life of their own. Lager (Camp) 1982, for example, portrays a concentration camp with its barbed wire fencing and electric lights, painted partially with embers. The canvas bears the burn holes that prove the existence of fire and convince us that the camp and its terror are real. This painting is also an example of Polke's signature ability to merge abstraction with form in one work. The iridescent purples, both paint and fabric, act as vaporous clouds that sometimes shroud forms and sometimes reveal them. Similarly, depending on the distances from which the piece is viewed, different visual information is given and various figural representations become apparent or disappear. Thus, a lamp assumes the form of a helmet, seen from one perspective.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Polke continued working with a favored subject, Germany's East/West split and its relationship to consumerism. In his 1987-1988 Watchtower with Geese, the menacing border guard tower acts as a symbol of the country's internal division. It is placed on one side of the canvas, while on the other is a piece of black fabric patterned with "kitsch emblems of leisure—beach umbrellas, sunglasses, deck chairs—and in between the two a gaggle of outlined geese, with no clue as to whether they are citizens of West or East," wrote Hughes.
The overwhelmingly large scale of the Hochsitz (Watch tower) series from the mid-'80s is both terrifying and arresting, especially because viewers are placed in the position of feeling like they are in the camps, hunted prey. Polke used his trademark technique of placing fabric swatches with gaudy patterns as the backdrop for pop culture images and overlaid drawings. As Dorothy Valakos mentioned in a biographical sketch of Polke, "[They] suggest the frightening, mechanized impersonality of fascism and dictatorship, and the social conformity and complicity that permits them to exist." Their gold and black colors created by silver bromide, iodine, and chloride, are connected to some of his later abstract works, which are made of alchemical mixtures of silver nitrate, resins, meteor particles, and unstable pigments, among other non-art materials. The stuff of these paintings suggests both the poisons of industrial by-products and the magic of alchemical change.
"In the early 1980s Polke embarked upon a series of experiments that continue down to the present, which have often been termed alchemical and in which the paintings themselves, as real, physical objects, effectively serve as his laboratory and at the same time the objects of his experiments," wrote Caldwell. The Spirits that Lend Strength are Invisible, 1988, is a series of five risky pieces, created for the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh. The title fittingly comes from a Native American saying, while the paintings pay tribute to the New World by containing materials from the Americas, rather than Europe. Polke attached unconventional materials and objects to the canvases— pure tellurium blown onto artificial resin, ground meteor particles, layers of nickel and silver nitrate, as well as Neolithic tools—thus creating another set of paintings that were not exactly painted. They are toxic in their constitution, but refer abstractly to nature without having a specific, identifiable subject matter. In his description of the series, Caldwell noted, "We are in a strangely empty, yet magical landscape, in which the dust of meteors and of obscure chemical elements is moved about by silent, unfelt winds."
Another series of six paintings from this time period, Speigelbilder (Mirror Images, 1986), "present images of cosmic forces interacting, erupting, exploding. From galactic detritus to vaporous congealing lacquer surfaces, these paintings 'mirror' processes of abstraction's spiritual essence … By employing complicated, alchemical mixtures of resins, violet pigments and silver nitrate, Polke's surfaces trap, conduct and model light in refractive, elusive ways," wrote David Moos in Art/Text.
From 1982 on, the artist continually created pieces that transformed themselves based on the passage of time or on their surroundings. Works like Lager and Watchtower II reveal various images based on the angle the viewer takes. In the latter painting, the guard tower vanishes and reappears as the onlooker shifts positions. In addition, the painting's very color alters as the external conditions of temperature and humidity shift around it. In Pittsburgh, the piece had a purple hue, while in Los Angeles it turned green. In 1986, Polke's big wall painting in the German Pavilion at the
Venice Bienale changed its appearance based on humidity, his 1988 mural in Paris responded to temperature, and a series of canvases including The Spirits that Lend Strength Are Invisible IV, 1988, revealed little or nothing at first, but then gradually began displaying images, as if painted in invisible ink. Aside from disturbing the viewer's sense of logic, these mutable paintings play an important role in creating art forms that are irreproducible—unique and almost supernatural in their inability to be pinned down by photography. In that sense, they move counter to art in the modern world, which can lose its magic, in a sense, due to its ability to be copied. Polke's shifting canvases are truly original works, acting as living creatures that have the potential to react to their environment.
Although it was primarily his early works that were exhibited in the foremost United States museums in the '90s, in 1999, Art News dubbed Polke one of "Ten Most Important Living Artists." The same year, New York City's Museum of Modern Art showed Works on Paper: 1963-1974, which included The Ride on the Eight of Infinity, four overwhelmingly large pieces that suggested the non-linear streams of consciousness and collaging of images that were to come in the next 20 years. In Los Angeles and Minneapolis Polke exhibited some of his manipulated photographs, paintings from the '80s and early '90s, and collaged images. In Germany, however, museums across the country exhibited a thorough, retrospective show called Three Lies of Painting.
Polke's approach through the '90s was a continuation and deepening of the anti-art, alchemical technique he had begun to experiment with decades before. His work included the use of resins, enamel-like coats of color, and other man-made chemical and metallic combinations applied to layers of see-through polyester fabrics. This time, though, the artist's subject, rather than being stimulated by Pop culture was inspired by literature, mythology, and history, along with the under-current of social and political commentary that infused his earlier work. Still, he employed the raster dot patterns he became known for in his early days. In 2002, Polke's artistic lifetime achievements earned him the distinguished honor of receiving the Japan Art Association's 14th Praemium Imperiale Award for painting. Along with his diploma and medal, he was presented with $125,000 for his contribution to international arts and culture.
Although Polke's art has been called one of appropriation, it is much more than that. True, his installations, paintings, drawings, collages, and photography do grab images from sources belonging to both high and low culture— from William Blake to comic books and silly advertisements. Often, there is no linear narrative and the artist leaps from one visual to the next, creating a free-spirited and mad dance for the eyes. It is important to remember, though, that Polke creates entirely new art forms and particular states of consciousness with his work. It transcends art as viewers have traditionally been trained to think of it and blasts them into a mystical world of abstract, unidentifiable substances and concrete images—masterfully combining form and formlessness.
Pendergast, Sara and Tom, editors, Contemporary Artists, Fifth Edition, St. James Press, 2002.
Art/Text, Fall 1998.
Time, December 9, 1991; May 31, 1999. □