M ichael Buthe and Sigmar Polke are both seminal voices in the German contemporary art canon, not only among their generation of radical Post-War German artists but for the generations that have followed them. Both born during the Second World War, Polke in Oels, Poland in 1941 and Buthe in Sonthofen, Germany’s most southernly town, in 1944, they grew up in a divided Germany against the backdrop of a Post-War society in flux. Their artworks have appeared in twenty-six shared exhibitions during their lifetimes, and a further nine since Buthe’s death in 1994.
Both artists were influenced by Joseph Beuys, with Polke having been taught by him at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1960s. During his time in Düsseldorf, Polke met contemporaries and future collaborators such as Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg. This group of friends became pioneers of the Capitalist Realism style of 1960s Germany, indicative of the attitude of German youth at the time. Capitalist Realism was created in West Berlin as a critique of both the heavily commodified and lucrative Pop Art movement, and the propaganda of Soviet socialist realism art.
For instance, Polke often parodied advertising aesthetics popular with Pop Art, brandishing superhero figures with supermarket logos as commentary on consumerism. Polke and Richter were among the artists working in Berlin that were caught up in this fascinating geographical intersection of political ideology and art, and as such sought to interrogate artistic, aesthetic and social conventions.
Unlike his protégées, Joseph Beuys sought great success in the more conventional American art world, whilst Polke and Buthe sought out their own kitsch and trippy stratospheres. However, both Polke and Buthe became teachers for a time themselves, inspiring a whole new generation and cementing their status as true artists’ artists. Buthe followed in Beuys’ footsteps, starting as a visiting professor at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1981, he then was appointed as a permanent professor in 1983 – a position that he continued for the rest of his life. From 1977–1991, Polke was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Hamburg.
Having to confront German history and geopolitical tensions while reinventing themselves and carving out their own unique oeuvres, had embraced a liberal transcendental way of living. This way of life is reflected in the experimental and otherworldly quality of their works, as each overflow with a heady sense of psychedelia, inspired by their global travels and experimentation with hallucinogens.
Friendship and collaboration are fundamental to both artists, as is evident in Buthe’s 1972 photographic portfolio: art information of Michael Buthe. Freunde / friends, which features many portraits of those closest to him, including fellow artists Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo and Katharina Sieverding.
The sense of community among the two artists extended to their lifestyles, as Polke formed the ad hoc Gaspelhof commune in Willich, near Düsseldorf where Buthe was a frequent guest. Polke shared the Gaspelhof space with an ever-changing community of guests, including his family, lovers, friends and collaborators from 1972-1978. This communal way of living that both Buthe and Polke undertook in the 1970s led to connections and collaborations that undoubtedly influenced their artistic practice.
Travel was also integral to both artists, often crossing paths as they journeyed. Buthe first visited Morocco in 1970, and then voyaged through Africa and the Middle East throughout his early twenties. He lived in Essaouira in Morocco for a while where he filled each room with “paintings, sculptures, and installations... houses made of branches draped with many different things he had found and brought back from the beach”. Buthe caroused the exploration of mythology, yet through his work he often challenged the othering of immigrants living in Germany, as well as the German perception of foreigners more widely. Michael Buthe’s artistic practice took a trajectory from installation and environments in his earlier work, through to paintings and drawings on paper. Inspired by lots of different world religions, alongside his own Roman Catholic upbringing, Buthe’s work are rich in different spiritual symbolism and aesthetics.
Sigmar Polke also travelled widely, reflected in his markedly assorted artistic practice. Polke spent time photographing his travels, infusing the people, bears and dancing Afghan monkeys he caught on camera with a surreal combination of word and collage. As a multimedia artist, his works have ranged from paintings, to collage, to photography, film and much more. Both Buthe and Polke pushing their work into new realms of tonal and material experimentation. Polke often employed the use of unconventional mediums and chemicals in his paintings, such as detergent, experimenting with their different reaction with paints, while Buthe’s use of found objects and materials mimicked the larger environments and installations for which he was so acclaimed.
These two artists' journeys are so alike in various ways. Their orbits continually crossed, their friendship growing through collaboration and a shared passion to create their own distinct worlds. The phrase ‘Polke, Richter, Buthe’ was common parlance in the 1980s German contemporary art scene, highlighting the sheer gravity of their influence, ever converging and pulling in liked minded creatives in a shrinking postwar world. Buthe and Polke are both household German names, however history has pushed Buthe into comparative anonymity dwarfed by Polke’s world wide renown. Two sides of the same coin, Buthe and Polke’s unique style and zeal truly endure through their shared invitation into experimentation and curiosity.