“Are you the great alchemist?,” a journalist once asked Sigmar Polke at an award ceremony in Germany (Heidrun Wirth, ‘Bilder können tanzen und singen’, Kölnische Rundschau, 22 June 2007). Although the artist ducked the question by throwing a handful of polystyrene chips over his shoulder in response (pointing out the ridiculousness of this proposition and simultaneously showing his appreciation through his equally absurd reaction), there is a serious undertone to the question that has driven some of Polke’s most inventive works. Undoubtedly one of the most radically experimental artists of the Twentieth Century, Sigmar Polke’s illustrious practice, that spans over four decades of artistic production and includes a dazzling variety of mediums such as painting, drawing, photography, video and performance, has left an unmistakable mark on contemporary art-history. More than any artist of our time, Polke has embraced the endless potential of his materials and made them work in ways that were previously unheard of.
Even in his early work from the 1960s Polke had already been interested in unorthodox materials such as printed fabrics, both for their material and pictorial qualities, but it was only after his decade-long break from painting in the 1970s that he fully embraced a new approach to the application of materials in his work that established an entirely new mode of pictorial possibilities. Rather than determining the application of the paint, Polke started to use chance as a key element in the composition of his works, letting the materials’ natural motion dictate the outcome of the work: “Polke allowed materials to determine the process rather than the other way around, a strategy that can be seen as a means of removing subjectivity or the authorial power of the artist from the act of painting” (Mark Godfrey in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, (and travelling), Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, 2014, p. 134).
© wowe. Artwork © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne, DACS 2015
Pushing a decidedly post-modern approach to painting to its absolute extremes, Polke went beyond the simple introduction of chance elements in painting which contemporaries like Gerhard Richter had also explored. By letting the paint and pigments themselves flow freely through his works, creating mesmerising patterns with materials and gravity as compositional tools, Polke developed a method of painting that effectively removed the artist’s subjectivity from his work. Executed in 1985, the present two works were made at the height of Polke’s exploratory spirit and are outstanding examples of the artist’s captivating works on paper from this decade. With sumptuous washes of paint and intricate patterns of drips set against a dramatic black background, they perfectly embody the artist’s dialogue between control and chance, but also demonstrate the pictorial power of this inventive strategy: “Polke literally and metaphorically dissects and dissolves images… all the while raising philosophical questions deeply concerned with not only the way images look and are made but also the possible and probable slippages, uncertainties, and misperceptions that can occur when we apprehend them” (Exhibition Catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art, Sigmar Polke, History of Everything, Paintings and Drawings 1998-2002, 2003, pp. 12-13).
As a powerful example of Sigmar Polke’s mystifying material and pictorial strategies, Untitled embodies some of the artist’s greatest accomplishments. His innovative approach and relentless experimentation with material and image have made him one of the most influential artists of the last century - indeed earning him the reputation as the Great Alchemist of contemporary art.