Created specifically for his exhibition in the German Federal Republic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1986, for which he was awarded the Leone d'Oro for Lifetime Achievement, the stunning and monumental Ohne Titel (Silberbild) by Sigmar Polke is a resplendent triumph of his effusive and unrelentingly inventive determination to redefine the parameters of what art could achieve. This vast canvas is a pinnacle in Polke’s career-long investigation of what was technically possible in painting; an ambition that reached new heights in the 1980s. Indeed, the commissioner of the 1986 West German Pavilion Dierk Stemmler described the progress of the artist’s contemporaneous work in the following terms: “Sigmar Polke is a transformer, and at the same time an investigator who explores for himself, through innumerable obstinate enquiries and experiments with historical and contemporary materials, the chemico-physical properties and reactions of dyes, lacquers, minerals, metals, and their combinations and mutations under the influx of radiation, light, heat, radioactivity…Incompatibilities crash into one another in enlarged extraneous-familiar spaces, functioning as intermediaries in visual dialogues with the intensity of original representations.” (Dierk Stemmler in General Catalogue: XLII Esposizione internazionale d'arte la biennale di Venezia, Venice, 1986, p. 276)
The title of Polke's 1986 exhibit was Athanor, the term for an alchemical kiln that directly signaled his fascination with alchemy as a system of understanding nature without recourse to positivistic science. Athanor was a watershed moment in Polke's career, universally recognised by critics as the highlight of the Biennale. Within the display, Polke included chunks of crystal, meteorite and quicksilver among the paintings, invoking the mysteries of primordial forces and eras. In the present work, with the application of small leaves of silver to the surface, which turn various golden hues beneath layers of resin, Polke very literally explores themes of alchemy within the possibilities of his media. Majestic layers of depthless purples and greens provide the shimmering backdrop arena to a glittering panoply of twinkling metallic accents, the play of which constantly adjusts through shifting relationships of light and perspective. Indeed, this continual flux has been aptly described by John Caldwell: "what Polke has done is 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) The show also included a series of eight works collectively titled Duererschleifen, or "Dürer's Loops", based on abstract shapes within Albrecht Dürer's famed print The Great Triumphal Chariot of Maximillian I (1522), and which have been displayed at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich for the past twenty years.
Polke’s sheer technical and aesthetic innovation is supremely represented by Ohne Titel (Silberbild), where silver, silver nitrate, silver oxide, pigments and natural resin all coalesce to form an immense abstract canvas of phenomenal beauty and enduring impact. The present work is archetypal of Polke’s best invention whereby an emphasis on qualities of light and transparency permeate his work, informed no doubt by an apprenticeship he undertook in a stained glass factory in Düsseldorf. Carefully guarded guild secrets since the fifteenth century, the techniques of Bavarian glass painting are known nevertheless to involve complex layers of metallic substances including silver nitrate. A powerful sense of this training is provided here by the contrasts of heavily saturated areas imbued with luscious pigment, against the glassy translucence of resin-coated canvas. Of course, silver oxide is also a principal constituent of photographic negative and print developing, and so this work is also tied to Polke’s ongoing conflation of the media of photography, paint and drawing.
Polke’s painting is fundamentally revolutionary and anti-conventional. As made succinctly manifest by the present work, in the words of Alex Farquharson, "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)