Sigmar Polke was one Germany’s seminal 20th century painters until his death in 2010. Alongside Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, Polke was at the forefront of post-war art in Germany, and in 2007 he scooped the Rubens Prize of the City of Siegen. Most famous for his paintings, Polke was also an accomplished photographer and was above all else a great experimenter whose art was always caught between ugly and jaw-dropping beauty.
Back in 1963, Polke combined with his compatriot, Gerhard Richter, to form the movement “Capitalist Realism.” In its simplest definition, Capitalism Realism was Germany’s very own version of Pop Art, an art movement which had been made popular in America by Andy Warhol. Focusing on Germany’s consumer culture, which was steadily accelerating now that the war was becoming a distant memory, Capitalist Realism had a bigger political slant than Pop Art.
As the sixties wound down to give way to the seventies, Polke became more interested in photography, as well as travel. Armed with his 35mm Leica camera, he travelled the world, shooting photographs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, Brazil and America. Rather than focus on mainstream America, he photographed homeless alcoholics, drug addicts and pedlars. It was while on his travels that Polke took the hallucinogenic drug LSD and began to see the photographic process as a chance to alter reality.
This so-called alteration of reality was created by mixing negatives and positives with vertical and horizontal oriented images. The result was a collage, a mash-up of images that were loaded with challenging meanings and complex narratives. It was this lust for experimentation that informed the rest of his artistic output.
Toward the end of the seventies, Polke returned to painting amidst a time of social, artistic and cultural change in Europe, and especially in Germany. He used painting as a platform to express his wit, irony and subversion. His paintings from this period are often parodical and commentate on consumerism, whilst challenging traditional artistic conventions.
It wasn’t until the eighties that Polke’s electric creativity really came to the fore. Whilst exploring Australia and Asia, he began to introduce new elements into his work: Arsenic, smoke, lavender and meteor dust. His paintings became gestural, and he combined abstraction with figurative images. He began to experiment with chemicals, combining pigments with various toxins and solvents. The resulting chemical reactions created artworks not dissimilar to those produced by the Abstract Expressionists a few decades earlier.
It is these experiments that led to Polke’s most famous pieces. The paintings are hallucinogenic, dreamy, and composed of various elements. Because he literally poured colour onto the canvasses, the colours themselves often invented the pictorial elements. His art is some of the most daring, imaginative and thought-provoking that we have seen in the 20th century. His collage-like canvases are charged with subtext; they are anarchical, layered, off-the-wall, and are all too often elusive. Today, his work sells for millions of dollars. [image source: alexkittle.com]