“Resolutely ordinary in their subjects, Polke’s paintings from the mid-1960s are instantaneously legible, completely immediate, and uninvolved with the rituals and conventions of the world of art. They hit our consciousness directly, like a small bullet from a silenced gun. In this respect Polke’s work—more than the American pop artists of these years—marks the most complete break with the abstract expressionism that had preceded it, and it reflects most clearly his direct relationship to life as we actually experience it.” (John Caldwell in Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke, 1990, p. 10)
Leaguered in fire
The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets,
And, halting higher,
The motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats,
Like an advancing mob in sword-points penned,
That, balked, yet stands at bay.
Mid-zenith hangs the fascinated day
In wind-lustrated hollows crystalline,
A wan Valkyrie whose wide pinions shine
Across the ensanguined ruins of the fray,
And in her hand swings high o’erhead,
Above the waster of war,
The silver torch-light of the evening star
Wherewith to search the faces of the dead.
Edith Wharton, An Autumn Sunset, 1894
The year 1967 saw a world divided. The Vietnam War raged in the jungles of Southeast Asia, race riots spread across the United States, and the Arab-Israeli conflict erupted in the Six-Day War. Meanwhile, European homes received their first full-color television broadcasts, The Beatles released their eighth record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and from the surge of hippie counterculture arose the psychedelic Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. Amidst a world ravaged by war, a kaleidoscopic proliferation of images promised escape. From within this landscape of ever-shifting topographical frontiers, Sigmar Polke immortalized the horizon. Executed at the start of Polke’s radically inventive and consummately mystifying career, Dschungel from 1967 marks the inception of the artist’s complex investigation into the machinations of image-making, and is quite simply unmatched in its supreme import, chromatic resplendence, and radical evocation of the sublime. Polke’s influential series of Rasterbilder, of which the present work is a leading example, were the first works to position Pop Art in a foreign context, examining the pioneering movement’s critical and often ironic examinations of mass media culture from the perspective of a social sphere that was wholly un-Westernized. In the spectacular nature of its prismatic panorama, Dschungel embodies the concurrent curiosity, wonderment, and trepidation that characterized the post-war view of the world among Polke and his contemporaries, a landscape newly rife with both possibility and danger. Aligning this perspective aesthetically with an ideal beauty as exemplified by the Romantic conception of the Landscape genre, Polke’s masterpiece probes the very mechanics of painting while unraveling the machinations of his surrounding socioeconomic and political climate. Dschungel imparts a magnificent beauty that simmers with portentous undercurrents, vacillating between poles of attraction and suspicion as its rich polychromatic surface ripples before our eyes.
If Pop Art probed the saturation of consumer culture within modern society, Germany after World War II was the ideal case-study: a nation impenetrably divided in two, the Eastern bloc was shielded from all capitalist media while West Germany struggled toward economic revitalization amidst wartime devastation. Born to the abysmally dark shadow of Nazism, Polke had lived on both sides of a divided Germany that was the crucible of the Cold War. Polke, who in 1953 at the age of 12 surreptitiously crossed with his family from East Germany to the West, experienced life in the two staunchly oppositional climates on either face of the Iron Curtain. The artist grew up within a climate of severe political instability, devastating poverty, and state repression; his architect father was conscripted to build covert military facilities by the Nazis, the purpose of which he never revealed. The seventh of eight children, Polke and his family fled from the Polish region of Silesia to Soviet-occupied Thuringia in 1945 during the German expulsion following World War II; eight years later, the Polkes escaped Communism under the GDR, settling in Düsseldorf by way of West Berlin. As a teenager growing up in West Germany, the artist bore captive witness to the proliferation of newspapers and magazines rife with images depicting a prosperous, modern nation. Hence Polke knew extremely well the manipulative power of the media and the potential of propaganda. During the late 1950s and early 60s, West Germany promoted what they coined the Wirstchaftwunder—the ‘economic miracle’ supporting the accelerated reconstruction of the nation’s economy—through the printed press, a cheap and infinitely reproducible vehicle for collective nation-building. Commercial printing became the most inconspicuously powerful socializing force shaping this ideological reformation. Reconstruction in West Germany after the fall of the Third Reich, however, was not as prosperous as the media purported. Two years after the war ended, food production stalled at only 51% of what it had been in 1938. While Polke was painting advertisements of nougat-centered chocolate bars as a reflection of the alleged lifestyle of increased affluence and consumption, potatoes still remained a dietary necessity for the majority of the German population. Thus, Polke was highly critical of the mass media imagery adopted by the country as its primary instrument for socioeconomic and political reprogramming.
Polke’s early works of the 1960s galvanized not only West Germany, but the entire landscape of post-war painting. Capturing the social acuity that Lichtenstein and Warhol brought to their renderings of everyday commodity culture, Polke infused his with the weight of the German socioeconomic context and history. Appropriating the pictorial shorthand of commercial printing, Polke illustrated the consumer provinciality of West Germany in contrast to the dazzling allure and seductive elegance of his American contemporaries. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the media was utilized as an instrument in socializing the populace—circulating resonant images of consumer products seemed to support the presence of the post-war economic miracle. Through this projection of an ideal capitalist society in the pages of the paper, print advertising capitalized on the public’s deepest longings and greatest unfulfilled desires. Indeed, the candies, cake, chocolates, and sausages that dominate Polke’s earliest paintings were not easily obtainable in the Germany of the 1950s and 1960s; Polke uncovers the experience of living with such imagery, but not having the means or the wherewithal to actually access the petit-bourgeois ideal drawn before the people. In the alluring utopia of Dschungel, Polke heightens this sense of the unattainable, as expressed through the commercialization of air travel and the leisure industry. In this sense, Polke embraces the American preoccupation with commercial imagery, but subverts the attraction with an inflected irony concerning the political agenda at the heart of such representations. As Kathy Halbreich described, “Polke’s love-hate relationship with the political and economic power of the United States began here, with an abundance both unattainable and unwanted. Even as the flood of consumer products in the 1950s operated like a narcotic, dulling memories of recent need and longing, there was a chill in the air. Increased prosperity had its own cost, and Germany, like postwar Japan, experienced what Ian Buruma has described as ‘bourgeois conformism… with its worship of the television set, the washing machine, and the refrigerator (‘The Three Sacred Treasures’), its slavish imitation of American culture, its monomaniacal focus on business, and the stuffy hierarchies of the academic and artistic establishments.' ” (Kathy Halbreich in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke: Alibis, 2014, p. 77)
The artist turned to the pictorial style of advertising in order to depict the consumer society’s highly prized objects of desire, harnessing the very technical device that promoted and circulated these aspirational images. The artist clearly understood how differently affecting this iconography was to a German reality recently freed from the shackles of oppressive socialism, in stark contrast to the functional impression of these advertising ideals to an American public. The artist’s keen unraveling of the disjuncture inherent in the connections between consumerism and repression informed his best pictures, most notably Dschungel. With the porous phantasmagoria of iridescent dots constituting Dschungel, Polke beckons an instant longing that is quickly thwarted by the impossibility to see clearly, aesthetically capturing the sensation of desire and concomitant absence of fulfillment characteristic to the consumer society of West Germany. In early landmark paintings such as the present work, Polke removed these images from their context and reproduced them in paint, his meticulous technique formally mimicking the raster process that was the only method available for commercial printing until the late 1960s. To create the heightened illusion of tone and spatial depth in print, ink would be dispersed through overlaid screens of variously shaped dots and lines, resulting in a matrix of Benday dots (or “raster-dots”). Using a perforated metal stencil and a spray-gun, Polke applied fine grids of microscopic dots in monochromatic networks atop and next to one another, creating a multi-layered stratification of luminescent color that revels in imprecision. Unlike his black and white Rasterbilder, color reproduction required complex angling of sequentially applied individual layers of color; moiré effects are more common in color printing than in black and white, here exploited by Polke to maximum effect. By positioning the grids of color ‘incorrectly,’ Polke flooded the image with an unfocused, glistening translucency. Observed from up close, these dots appear fragmentary and disjunctive, but coalesce in the mind’s eye to form a unified image. In magnifying the scale of the raster-dots through their transfer to canvas, Polke revealed the covert underlying grid structure of the image. Polke enlarged the mechanically reproduced Benday pattern found in newspaper printing almost to the point of abstraction, breaking down the aesthetic and physical structures of the source image to the point of collapse. By actively disrupting the size and density of the Raster with an experimental hand-painted stratum of screened dots, Polke subtly corroded the cohesiveness and integrity of the image and thus subverted the dominance of the subject. Consequently, and as he continued to do for the rest of his career, Polke established a multi-layered ambiguity here that poses important questions about the nature of image-making, of perception, and of reality.
In the 1960s, both Polke and Richter engaged with tourism imagery, providing a significant commentary on the social promise of new forms of leisure experience to the citizens of Germany following the war. For Richter, pyramids and sphinxes, families on motorboats, and loungers on deckchairs represented his concentration on the images produced by the tourist industry, decontextualizing and blurring these images from their original location of consumption on brochure pages. Similarly, the tropical Technicolor palette of Polke’s Dschungel epitomizes the artist’s interest in the leisure trade. Tate curator Mark Godfrey suggested, “Most of the time, instead of actual destinations and iconic sites, [Polke] was interested in the promises made and fantasies produced by the tourist industry and in how to represent and undercut them... to stage escape as something that was being promoted while remaining unattainable.” (Mark Godfrey in Exh. Cat., Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (and travelling), Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism, 2013, p. 235) With his disorienting raster technique, Polke creates a disjunction between the image of a sweltering paradise and the reality of everyday life, subverting the allure of holiday with its relegation to the aspirational pages of the advertisement. Polke’s interest in the exotic mirrored the utopian aspirations of the German populace recently freed from Communism, whose desires for freedom and discovery were projected onto the seemingly achievable, consumable advertisements of exotic locales. With Dschungel, we enter a Technicolor realm of magic and imagination that shimmers before our eyes while simultaneously corroding by the very instability of the raster dot image. The artist foregrounds the fantasy of the bourgeoisie who could dream of the places they might escape to, but could still not afford to see. As explained by Martin Hentschel, “A whole range of motifs that Polke embraces in his visual world in the sixties seem like collections of finds from reconnaissance missions in petit bourgeois, German living rooms. And it is not by chance that ‘the exotic’ crops up so frequently. This is wholly in keeping with the conservatism of any emergent affluent society which first finds expression within the individual members’ own four walls. In this context the exotic takes on the role of a projection screen. As yet, foreign travel is beyond the means of most people, so the only thing to do is to create a visual ‘idyll’ in one’s own ‘interior space’ by incorporating some touch of foreignness, fleetingly glimpsed in travel brochures.” (Martin Hentschel in Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (and travelling), Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting, 1997, p. 46) If the brilliant image of the tropical sun setting beyond the trees, awash in a sea of prismatic hues, seems to offer us utopia, what Polke does with his signature political skepticism is puncture holes in the very screen of petit-bourgeois projections—in perforating utopia, what we are arguably left with is a lacerating and chromatically brilliant crossfire of flimsy social ideals. It was also in 1967 that Apollo 1—NASA’s first manned expedition into space—exploded into flames during a launch pad test, killing three astronauts on board and temporarily aborting mankind’s idealistic quest to step foot on the moon.
In 2003, Polke recalled his first reactions upon moving to the West, and how they came to shape his entire body of work: “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 attitude—looking at what is happening from a point of view outside—is still part of my work.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke: Alibis, 2014, p. 77) From as early as 1964, the notion of the exotic escape—as symbolized by the recurring motif of the tropical palm tree, the heron, and the unfamiliar romantic other—was periodically explored by the artist, whose position in West Germany afforded him a unique political perspective on the idyll of flight. Dschungel seems to anticipate Polke’s voracious travels of later years to exotic locales like Brazil, Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, the UAE, and Afghanistan. Like Paul Gauguin, Polke’s fascination with the other stemmed from a lust for paradise coupled with the understanding of a far less alluring reality. Halbreich in fact suggests that, “Polke, of course, was aware that Gauguin’s search for an authentic, uncorrupted Eden ended in disillusion, with the artist both witnessing and participating in the devastating Westernization of this South Seas arcadia. So while Polke was susceptible to the lure of the exotic, his knowing appropriation of Gauguin’s ‘native’ imagery indicates he recognized the perils of colonialist voyeurism, and of his own attempts to disappear entirely into another identity.” (Ibid., p. 85)
It was in response to this patently ideological, propagandistic impulse that Polke, along with Gerhard Richter, Manfred Kuttner, and Konrad Lueg, founded the movement of Capitalist Realism in 1963, a sardonic antidote to the state-sponsored Social Realism style of art governing the GDR. The term Capitalist Realism first emerged in May 1963, when Polke, Richter, Kuttner, and Lueg rented a vacant butcher’s shop at Kaiserstrasse 31A and declared the inauguration of German Pop Art, coining the term in the press release for the show. They announced, “For the first time in Germany, we are showing paintings for which such terms as Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, New Objectivity, Naturalism, German Pop and the like are appropriate.” Five months later, in October 1963, Richter and Lueg staged the event Living with Pop—A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism in the Berges furniture showroom: here, the artists lounged among the store’s wares and dispersed their paintings with the showroom’s stock, disintegrating boundaries between art and industry in the vein of their American Pop counterparts. Pop Art’s investigation of the trivial and commonplace by way of the commodity was inflected by the group with the distinct psychological, cultural, and economic factors specific to the social politics of Germany. The group caught the attention of the young gallerist René Block, who later established Capitalist Realism as the basis of his program. These artists embraced the American obsession with media imagery and their modes of circulation, while investing such iconography with a distinctly chilly irony about the political uses of representation.
Polke, Richter, Kuttner, and Lueg first met at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, a burgeoning hotbed of artistic experimentation where their professors included such innovative luminaries as Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth. Beuys, one of the key progenitors of the Fluxus movement in Düsseldorf, grounded his work in concepts of spiritual enlightenment and social philosophies, activating through performance and participation opportunities for utopian thought and discourse. The hugely significant pedagogical presence of Joseph Beuys instituted the understanding of art as the potential facilitator of social and political change, expanding the realm of thought as to what art could mirror and subsequently achieve. After apprenticing for a stained-glass manufacturer, Polke entered the Kunstakademie in 1961, at a time when the influence of modern art was spreading across West Germany as a counterpart to the oppressive collective memory and ideologies that pervaded life under the Third Reich. Polke, Richter, and Kuttner had all recently emigrated from the GDR, arriving in the Bundesrepublik to a deluge of consumerist imagery and bountiful shop-window displays bursting with goods previously unavailable to them. While in the early 1960s, American Pop Art had not yet been exhibited in Germany, the group was well aware of the groundbreaking artistic revolution overseas from the pages of international art journals. In 1964, Pop Art made its way to Europe for the first time when Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Johns, Dine, and Oldenburg were all included in the Venice Biennale; Polke and Richter first saw Lichtenstein’s work as reproduced in the pages of Art International as part of a section about Neo-Dada. Polke and his peers drew influence from the movement’s progenitors while defining their sensibilities as profoundly distinct, as expressed in a collective statement: “Pop art recognizes the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomenon and turns their attributes, formulations and content through artifice, into art. It thus fundamentally changes the face of modern painting and inaugurates an aesthetic revolution. Pop art has rendered conventional painting—with all its sterility, its isolation—its artificiality, its taboos and its rules—entirely obsolete, and has rapidly achieved international currency and recognition by creating a new view of the world.” (Gerhard Richter, Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, “Letter to a Newsreel Company,” 29 April 1963) The parallels between Polke and his American Pop Art counterparts such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist are palpable in their shared appropriation and inherent distrust of widely circulated mass media images.
Unlike the glossy, machinelike perfection of Lichtenstein’s uniform, tightly composed pictures, however, Polke compromised the images he reproduced through manipulating the shape and scale of the dots, distorting the matrix structure to erode the resulting image into a ghostly blur, an effect akin to Richter’s most fêted photo-paintings. The strategy of magnifying and arranging dots according to a system of mechanical reproduction is sharpened in Lichtenstein’s images, whereas in Polke’s hands, the system’s effectiveness is entirely corrupted by overlaying dots of different scale and color. Blurred areas of Dschungel reveal a chorus of multicolored dots congealing and overlapping, nearly forfeiting legibility. Polke revealed the very structure of the image’s production, thereby unraveling the codes by which pictorial messages are organized and transmitted. Furthermore, although the perforated imperfections generated in Dschungel evoke the hasty smudges, eerie shadows, and off-key printer errors of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen masterworks, Polke achieved these effects through painstakingly applying the Benday dots manually—at the heart of his picture is the hand of an expertly skilled painter. Like the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, whose pictures pulsate with an atmospheric veil of color, Dschungel radiates with ethereal luminosity. However, the brusque simplification of Polke’s primary color palette and corrupted pattern emphasize the technique as a mediating structure. The power endemic to newspaper and published images was broadcast via the schematic grids of Raster dots. In formally breaking down the grids and undermining the cohesiveness of the picture, Polke successfully subverted the authority of the image, interrogating the objective truth it purportedly carried.
Dschungel obliterates the distinction between abstraction and figuration, the dots rippling and humming loudly before the viewer’s eye. Meanwhile, from afar a generic image of an exotic landscape surges through the pointillist screen. The painting rejects depth in favor of a surface that comes alive by perpetually shifting between motion and stasis, an effect that emphasizes the artifice of the image and its ceaseless potentiality for both reproduction and manipulation. The artist engaged the raster-dot technique as a means, in his own words, “to treat the whole surface in the same way—like Cézanne—and to treat all subjects in the same way: a horse, a woman, an ass, etc.” (Margit Rowell in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke Works on Paper 1963-1974, 1999, p. 16) Dschungel brilliantly deconstructs the image into its constituent parts, highlighting the viewer as the ultimate endpoint at which pictures are optically fused, subsequently decoded, and translated to acquire their ideological impact. Among the first, foundational group of paintings utilizing Polke’s iconic raster-dot technique, and one of a small number of multi-colored examples, Dschungel was executed at a moment when the artist was still experimenting with the singular form that he would revisit regularly in the body of exceedingly diverse, masterpieces that he produced. This masterpiece exemplifies the spirit of radical experimentation and renewed complexity that Polke pursued over the span of his storied career, offering an inimitable glimpse into the seminal stages of the development of the artist’s painterly lexicon. As Peter Schjeldahl admiringly noted, “To learn more and more about him, it has sometimes seemed to me, is to know less and less. His art is like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland rabbit hole, entrance to a realm of spiraling perplexities, one of which is his uncanny relation to American art, first as a provincial follower and later as a seminal influence.” (Peter Schjeldahl, "The Daemon and Sigmar Polke" in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, Sigmar Polke, 1990-1991, p. 17)
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