I cannot believe that I have heard of Sigmar Polke’s death only ten days after it happened. It might be strange to start properly a blog on painting with an obituary, but considering the strong influence Polke has left on me, and I assume on a whole generation of painters, I couldn’t left it unnoticed
Along with other German painters like Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff which all have had a strong impact on my practice, Polke prompt the resurgence of painting in the art world in the 1980s to become in the last 20 years one of the most celebrated painter, both influential and inimitable.
Polke was born in Eastern Germany, escaped to the west at the age of twelve by pretending to be asleep in a train and spend the rest of his life in the vicinities of Düsseldorf/Cologne where he first settled. At that time, in the 1960s, Düsseldorf provided the perfect environment for young aspiring artists: commercial galleries were blossoming, first solo shows of Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly were held and key figures of the Fluxus movement gathered there (Nam June and George Maciunas started there in 1962).
In 1961, Polke enrolled at the Düsseldorf Art Academy which was at its most experimental phase, with Joseph Beuys as a teacher and Gerhard Richter as a fellow student. Together with Konrad Lueg, they founded in 1963 a painting movement called “Capitalism Realism”, a pun on Social realism and Pop Art that they both rejected, preferring to it anarchic snipping. Their first show took place in a shopfront. Later on, Konrad Lueg became Konrad Fischer, famous art dealer who gave Polke two exhibitions.
Unlike Pop artists like Warhol or Lichtenstein, Polke chose to paint the mechanical process reproducing the way in which image appear together with its accidental variations. Rather that conveying Pop’s coldness, his work is sensual, self-conscious and eloquently intelligent. Despite some of his work’s simplistic and banal appearance, he is actually preoccupied by establishing the distance of critical reflexivity by giving a great deal of attention to details. We are in deed very far from American hedonism, consumerism and somewhat naivety.
Polke’s work developed anarchic elements through his whimsical unpredictable approach. He became known for his irreverence for traditional painting techniques and material which made him a visual revolutionary. Polke combined household materials and paint, lacquers, pigment, screen print and transparent sheeting in one piece. Before transferring to the Art Academy, Polke completed a glass-painting apprenticeship which constituted a lifelong interest for transparency. Many of his paintings are made of thin layers which implicitly reveal complicated narratives, giving the effect of witnessing the projection of a hallucination or dream through a series of veils.
Already in the 1960s, Polke is very much aware that painting is about selecting codes, which for a lot of them are already beginning to decline (Warhol, Pop art, Abstract Expressionism, Noland’s stripes, etc). Aware of the development of contemporary art, his work starts off as a “metacommentary” thereon. But where Polke has been enormously influential is in defining an image of how consciousness organises and filters the constant bombardment of images that characterise our experience of the contemporary world, rather than simply illustrating a state of mind.
Polke was known from the journalists for having unpredictable temperamental nature, rarey giving interviews and showing up at meeting. Despite his success in the 1980s-1990s, Polke remained in the margins, leading a comparatively modest life. He was working without an assistant, in a warehouse in Cologne, surrounded by books and his paintings.
As Adrian Searle says better than me in Polke’s obituary in the guardian (16 June 2010): “His art may have begun as a European response to American pop art, but it went on to be much more. He both dismantled painting and reconfigured our idea of what it could be. He respected history and played the devil with it. Unpacking his art is going to take a long time.”
K. Power, “Polke”, Frieze magazine, Issue 4, April-May 1992
Jörg Heiser, “Cosmic Rays”, Frieze magazine, Issue 110, October 2007