On the Death of Sigmar Polke
||An artist in psychedelic wonderland—somewhere between sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, hippie culture, and political activism. The three-part retrospective the Hamburger Kunsthalle presented in 2009/2010 revealed a side of Sigmar Polke that many did not yet know. Yet his works of the ’70s acted as a kind of bridge between the "Capitalist Realism" of the ’60s and his color experiments of the ’80s. The title of the show, Wir Kleinbürger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen (We petty bourgeois! Contemporaries), voted exhibition of the year by the Association of Art Critics, was the last major exhibition to take place during Polke’s lifetime. In spite of his grave illness, he worked intensively on the show. Now, after a long battle with cancer, Sigmar Polke has died in Cologne at the age of 69.
Gerhard Richter and Polke were considered to be the two most important German contemporary painters. In 1963, during their time at the Dusseldorf art academy, they called "Capitalist Realism" into being. Both had fled from the GDR, both had reacted in their work to the Socialist Realism propagated there, but also to Informel, the West’s abstract answer to the artistic doctrine of the East. They developed a quintessentially German version of American Pop Art and used it to poke fun at the stuffiness of the Adenauer years. Instead of Brillo boxes, Polke adapted motifs from German housekeeping magazines, and instead of working with silkscreen, he painted his screened images by hand, dot by dot. From the very beginning, quotations in motif and style played a key role in his work. He reworked media imagery, illustrations, and comics, portraying the post-war German "economic wonder" aesthetic with its flamingos, leopard skin patterns, and palm trees on cheap fabrics; he provided subversive commentary on bourgeois desires.
Higher Beings Command: Paint the top right corner black! was the title of probably his most famous painting made in 1963. The motif is exactly what the name calls for: a minimalist white canvas, with the title carefully noted below and the upper right corner dutifully painted in black. The painting is an ironic commentary on the myth of the artist genius who creates masterpieces on the power of inspiration alone. Humor and irony characterized his work from the start, for instance in the work Optimierung, a silkscreen edition he made for the Deutsche Bank Collection in which a snake plant sits on a windowsill. Behind the "Mother-in-law’s Tongue" is a pattern reminiscent of number columns; in the upper left corner is the word "Optimierung" (optimization). The leisure motif that Polke inserted into his composition like a talk bubble—visitors to a swimming pool posing together cheerfully for a group photo—suggests that employees might have other things on their minds than working more productively. Optimierung reads as a satire on the world of offices, numbers, and banks.
Polke’s works were acquired early for the Deutsche Bank Collection. In Tower A of the bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt, the entire 21st floor was dedicated to him, while his paper works have been shown in numerous exhibitions such as From a German Perspective, Man in the Middle, Blind Date, and Drawing a Tension. Many works by Polke count among the portfolio of 600 important pieces from the Deutsche Bank Collection that will be given over to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt when it opens its annex in early 2011. In 1994 he was elected Artist of the Fiscal Year—his works from the collection were printed in the annual report and were shown in a traveling exhibition in numerous bank branches.
What characterized Polke’s work throughout his career was his ongoing love of experimentation. While he initially explored the effects of a variety of different combinations of motifs, during the 1980s he worked with lead solutions, silver nitrate, shellac, micaceous iron oxide, and mutable thermo and hydro paints. The so-called material paintings brought him the reputation of an alchemist. At the 1986 Venice Biennale, he showed heat-sensitive works in the German Pavilion that shined in colors that varied according to the temperature; he was awarded the "Golden Lion" for the best artistic achievement.
Polke’s wit and stylistic pluralism, his implementation of the art historical canon and the media have left a deep mark on an entire generation of artists. He began teaching at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg in 1975. Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner, Georg Herold, and Martin Kippenberger didn’t spend time with him at the school, however, but in bars like Vienna and Gans. In the age of Punk and New Wave, Polke’s ironic wit, his refusal to be pigeonholed, and not least his painting titles—such as Original und Fälschung 21 (Original and Forgery), Frau im Spiegel (Woman in a Mirror), Wer hat noch nicht, wer will noch mal (Who doesn’t have any yet, who wants more)—seem absolutely contemporary.
Polke completed his last public project in 2009 for the Grossmünster in Zurich: seven church windows were made of sections of agate and five others were fashioned from glass to represent Old Testament figures. Polke remained true to himself: the "abstract" agate windows recall traditions of late antiquity, although the stone was refined through chemical and “alchemical” processes that lent it an even more intense coloration. For the glass windows, Polke digitally altered motifs from Romanesque manuscript painting and photographs. The project brought an aspect of Polke’s life full circle—before Polke began studying at the Dusseldorf Academy, he had done an apprenticeship with a glass painter.