The white paint used by Polke fluctuates in radiance depending on the luminosity of its surroundings; this shifting quality is emphatically underscored by the bright but matte blue backdrop of Polke’s Druckfehler, like clouds drifting across a motionless sky. Further informed by his decade-long experimentation with photography and film, the imposition of semi-transparent figurative elements in a storyboard-like presentation, alongside abstract washes of paint, gives the work an almost cinematic experience. Polke’s experiments with the chemical processes of photography have indeed found their way into his paintings, which seems to blend multiple projections of abstract and figurative elements into a new image. This salient tension between abstraction and figuration is masterfully resolved in Polke’s careful juxtaposition of imagery, materials and methods of application. Undermining the traditional hierarchy of these categories, the artist’s chance-based application of lush and abstract layers of paint, replicates the state of flux that is suggested in the image. Its title, Druckfehler, meaning ‘misprint’ is representative of this fluidity and also evokes the off-key printer errors of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen masterworks. This painting reveals the understanding of the painter as an alchemist involved with explorations of scientific reaction to materials, signalling his fascination with alchemy as a system of understanding nature without recourse to positivistic science. Polke creates a characteristically pseudoscientist composition, with various blueish hues punctuated with cascades of ivory and purple that burst incandescently from the surface, like sporadic beacons of glowing light.
Majestic yet depthless cool blue layers provide a backdrop arena to panoply of dancing white, which glides gracefully across the canvas like a gymnast’s ribbon. The lattice-like ordered Raster images alongside the lyrical gesture of the brush creates a magnificent display of playfulness and the constant shifting of the relationships of light and perspective fashions a sense of serenity within the freedom of the work. Indeed this continual flux throughout Polke’s oeuvre has been aptly described by John Caldwell: “What Polke has done to produce paintings that seem to look back at us by changing as we look at them, and thus allow them to have the very aura of a work of art” (John Caldwell in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke, 1990, p. 13). Furthermore, Polke’s expressive yet precise layering of paint juxtaposed with the fleeting dots and off-white paint creates an ethereal quality hinting at the potential disappearance of the image. Through the multiple layering of grids of spots, contours are reduced to stark silhouettes while sublet variances in tone and hue are reduced to a matrix of offsetting shimmering black and white dots.
In its fusion of sources, painterly approaches and material support, Druckfehler offers an utterly unique insight into the elusive but crucially important practice of one the Germany’s most influential twentieth-century artists. The present work vitally illustrates how the indefinable Polke privileged ambiguity over clarity, epitomizing his wild disregard for the conventions of painting; a character trait reflected his own reticence bringing a freshness and originality that defiantly flouts all attempts at categorisation. Alex Farquharson has described the era-defining nature of Polke’s painterly explorations: “Techniques such as these represented a radical affront to the unity of painting as understood by the Modernist tradition. Polke’s works were everything painting wasn’t supposed to be: vulgar, mocking, parodic, decorative, heterotopic, discontinuous, self-reflexive and self-critical… by the 1980s Polke was the consummate and emblematic postmodern painter” (Alex Farquharson, ‘Sigmar Polke’, Frieze Magazine, Issue 81, March 2004, online).
“I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about. The way that motifs change from recognisable to unrecognisable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open… Lots of vibrating, resonating, blurring, re-emerging, thoughts of radio signals, radio pictures and television come to mind.” – Sigmar Polke, 1966
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