German Painter, Sculptor, Photographer, Filmmaker, Performance and Conceptual Artist
Summary of Sigmar Polke
Multi-media artist, Sigmar Polke, had the capacity to be at once irreverent, playful, and acerbic. From painting to photography and film to installations and prints, Polke's work, which often incorporated non-traditional materials and techniques, was above all a critique of art itself. Sometimes veiled and sometimes confrontational, the messages conveyed in his work raise serious questions about aesthetic, political, and social conventions. For Polke, the production of art was consistently a dialogue between himself and the viewer, which presented virtually limitless interpretive possibilities. Along with a group of fellow artists that included Gerhard Richter, he introduced the term, Capitalist Realism, which refers loosely to commodity-based art. Further, and specifically in the case of Polke's work, Capitalist Realism constitutes not only a critique of Pop art and the commodification of art and capitalism overall but also of the idealistic and overtly nationalistic Soviet Social Realism that Polke was particularly exposed (and opposed) to.
- The cynically witty Polke helped launch the Capitalist Realism style as a response to American and British Pop art. Rather than simply commenting on mass production and conspicuous consumption Polke went a step further. With works such as Chocolate Painting, he eliminated signifiers like labels with brand names in order to poke fun at notions of individuality and uniqueness. Indeed, despite the biting commentary of Pop art and its critique of capitalist consumer homogeneity, works like Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans, with their labels and their sameness, still sold for large sums. The objects in Polke's Pop works are stripped of such identifiers, which emphasizes how banal they actually are.
- At the fore of Polke's experiments was the impulse to challenge virtually every convention of art, often in surprising and ingenious ways. His iconoclastic tendencies extended not merely to content but to the materials of the works themselves, which were often adamantly non-traditional. From uranium and meteorite dust, brightly printed fabric and soot, to bubble wrap and potatoes, Polke's artistic odyssey took him and his work to the potential limits of creation.
- The subject of appropriation was a major theme in the work of Polke who challenged notions of authorship, authenticity, and objectivity. Drawing on images from modernist works that had become mainstream such as Jackson Pollock's drip paintings or Roy Lichtenstein's Ben-day dots -- Polke, not unlike Marcel Duchamp, demanded to know what constituted originality in a world where copies have become prized and designer homogeneity had become a marker of status.
Biography of Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke was born in Oels, a small town in Lower Silesia, Poland. He was one of eight children and though his father was an architect, according to Polke, the family had very little money. Born in the middle of World War II, he remembers the "trauma" of the war, which "dominated [his] childhood." Polke recalled his engagement with art in this early years, "I began drawing as a very young child and had a grandfather who experimented with photography, so those things constituted my first exposure to art."
Important Art by Sigmar Polke
This work, painted while Polke was still a student, demonstrates the strong influence Pop art had over the artist in his formative years. Since Pop art had not become a phenomenon in Germany at that point, Polke's exposure to it was largely via its dissemination in art magazines and newspapers. Monika Wagner has argued that this painting added to the breadth of Pop art's subject matter by "expand[ing] the iconography of food to include everyday meals." However, while American Pop was primarily concerned with brands and consumer goods, Polke instead chose to represent an unbranded chocolate bar that had already been opened, implying a different and perhaps a more subtle sensibility to that found in Andy Warhol's iconic and untouched Campbell's soup cans, for example.
Having escaped from post-war, communist East Germany to the West, Polke always viewed the commodities of capitalism in contrast to his own personal knowledge of the restrictions of communism. He once claimed, "When I came to the West, I saw many, many things for the first time. But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn't really Heaven." This dual criticism of capitalism and communism came to the fore in the Capitalist Realist movement he co-launched the year before this work was executed.
The Capitalist Realist movement mocked the Socialist Realist style of art endorsed by the Soviet Union, which dominated the art of many communist countries. Typically, Socialist Realism was openly nationalistic. Most often, art produced in this style -- the only art sanctioned by the state -- emphasized loyalty to the communist party and featured content that promoted party ideology. Polke exposes the bright, idealism of Socialist Realism as well as Western consumerism in this work. Chocolate Painting is a confluence of seemingly opposing ideologies: this chocolate bar, sans label, becomes a sort of signifier for banality, uniformity, and uncritical consumption. It mocks the sometimes sickeningly sweet imagery of Socialist Realism and blurs the line between the consumer and the ideology of consumption.
Polke's Bunnies is composed using a dot technique that characterizes several of his paintings completed in the mid-1960s. The technique is a clear reference to the popular dot paintings by Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, who used dots derived from the Ben-Day dots printing process, but exaggerated and enlarged them for impact. However, while Lichtenstein's works use dots to delineate and simplify a composition, Polke's dots -- sometimes humorously termed "Polke dots" -- function to distort and obscure his subjects. Polke's dot technique is known as Rasterbilder, referring to a method of dot printing using a raster screen. Eternally interested in processes of production and reproduction, Polke destabilizes the (usually reliable) printing process by introducing irregularly sized dots and additional colors.
In Bunnies, his subject is a group of women provocatively dressed in the style of Playboy Bunnies. Although from a distance the women appear to be attractive, upon closer inspection their facial features dissolve into a set of colored circles that appear more monstrous than human. Polke erases the women's individual identities, thus pointing out what he regarded as the objectification inherent in such images.
In this work, Polke is playing with the audience's usual reactions to such images. Magazines such as Playboy present women as physically appealing sexual objects, enticing the viewer to look closer at high-definition photographs in portable formats. By placing his large image (59 x 39.5 inches) on the wall of a gallery and drawing the viewer in to scrutinize the women's bodies in the public space of the museum, Polke makes the viewer feel uncomfortable and forces them to confront their habitual modes of viewing.
Although he is best known for his experiments in painting and photography, Polke also created a number of sculptures over the course of his career. One of the best known such works is his Potato House, a flat-pack, lattice structure studded with real potatoes. The "house" plays with the visual tropes of Minimalism, which frequently made use of cubes, grids, and reductive representations of shelters. However, Polke adds an organic element usually missing from Minimalist works, using his ornamental potatoes to poke fun at the movement's sobriety.
Potatoes make an appearance in multiple works by Polke. In postwar Germany, potatoes were a staple in the diets of most people and are emblematic of the drab, devastated country in the war's aftermath. A close friend of the artist, publisher and psychologist, Friedrich Wolfram Heubach commented on Polke's use of potatoes in his work in a 1976 essay. He wrote, "If there is anything that embodies every aspect of the artist that has ever come under discussion -- love of innovation, creativity, spontaneity, productivity, creation complete from within oneself, etc. -- it is the potato."
Not unlike the wry visual commentary of his Chocolate Painting, here Polke demonstrates his artistic interest in unbranded, everyday foodstuffs; potatoes were a staple food in deprived post-war Germany, and Polke features them in several artworks. In this work, the potato structure can be seen either as sheltering or caging the viewer, who is invited to step inside. By entering the work, the viewer becomes, quite literally, an insider who engages in actively transforming the meaning of the piece, including challenging conventional prohibitions concerning the propriety of actually touching art.
Potato House raises an interesting curatorial issue: The potatoes, being organic and perishable, must be provided by each museum that chooses to exhibit the work. They must also be replaced before they begin to sprout, shrivel, or rot. Polke was notoriously disdainful of the institutional nature of museums and this work functions as a challenge to both curators and museum-goers. In a sense, this work is not unlike the traditional vanitas images in which food and flowers, for instance, seem to be spoiling and wilting before our eyes, reminding us of how fleeting life is.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Sigmar Polke
- Sigmar Polke: Alibis 1963-2010Our PickBy Kathy Halbreich, Mark Godfrey and Lanka Tattersall
- Sigmar Polke: History of Everything, Paintings and Drawings 1998 - 2003By John Lane, Charles Wylie and Dave Hickey
- Sigmar Polke: Works on PaperBy Margit Rowell, Michael Semff and Bice Curiger
- Sigmar Polke: Paintings, Photographs and FilmsBy Gloria Moure
- Sigmar Polke: The Multiplication of HumourBy Eva Schmidt
- Sigmar Polke's Layered LookOur PickBy Kristine McKenna / The LA Times / December 3, 1995
- Polke's PlentitudeOur PickBy Raphael Rubinstein / Art in America / May 29, 2014
- Sigmar Polke: The artist who made Germany go popBy Alistair Sooke / The Telegraph / October 7, 2014
- Sigmar Polke ObituaryBy Christopher Masters / The Guardian / June 14, 2010
- Sigmar PolkeOur PickThe Telegraph / June 13, 2010
- German artist Sigmar Polke dies at 69By Matt Schudel / The Washington Post / June 13, 2010
- Sigmar Polke - From Meteor Dust to Bubble WrapBy Anahit Behrooz / The Culture Trip / January 20, 2016
- Sigmar Polke, whose sly works shaped contemporary painting, dies at 69By Roberta Smith / The New York Times / June 11, 2010
- Sigmar Polke - Sorry I Missed YouBy Adrian Searle / The Guardian / 16 June, 2010