Sigmar Polke’s Untitled from 2004 is a stunning combination of figuration and abstraction. Grounded by the female form, the composition is balanced by a sophisticated and complex layering of ethereal blues, purples, whites and greys. Polke’s work exemplifies a vigorous and exuberant sense of investigation. Just as he has done with the present work (evident in the masterpieces executed through the decades of the artist’s remarkable career) he scrutinizes the subject of idealized beauty through tackling our cognitive sense of visual perception.
In 1963 with his friends Gerhard Richter, Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg, Polke initiated the quasi movement Kapitalische Realismus (‘Capitalist Realism’) that, in its title alone, was a pithy riposte to the state-sponsored ‘Socialist Realism’ of the German Democratic Republic. Their first exhibition was entitled Life with Pop – A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism. Having been born in the dark shadow of Nazism, Polke lived on both sides of divided Germany, which was the crucible of the Cold War. Hence he knew extremely well the manipulative power of the media and the potential of propaganda. As such, the predominant method of mass production in the 1960s, the raster process, a technique used in commercial printing to recreate photographic images, transforms every facet of an image into a pixel value within a prefabricated hierarchy. Polke's iconic rasterbilder works not only critique issues of perception and reality in mass media-obsessed world, but also challenge global methods of communication as agents of social change.
Just as Richter made ‘photographs’ out of paint, so Polke began creating his celebrated style, purloining banal images from the mass media and reproducing them in the manner of rastering process. Polke's raster dots structured form in much the same way that Lichtenstein’s benday dots did. However, his later works saw the raster dots become less representative, and they worked in harmony with looser, more flexible areas of abstract brushwork.
In the present work, Polke’s fusing of the figurative with the abstract climaxes with the seductive foregrounding and mirroring of a woman starkly clad in negligée. She is depicted in the form of raster dots in both a positive and negative color scheme. She gazes outward, engaging the viewer, yet any feeling of confrontation is offset by the chilling warmth of iridescent colors, which change depending on how the painting is viewed. The picture combines dazzling visual beauty with a deep conceptual intelligence. Its relevance transgresses time just as Andy Warhol’s use of the Mona Lisa does. In various iterations of Warhol’s appropriation of the Mona Lisa he has reversed the positive and negative aspects of the image to achieve a ghostly dematerialization of the subject. Furthermore, his expressive yet precise layering of thick white paint onto an immaculately smooth layer of off-white paint creates an ethereal quality hinting at the potential disappearance of the image. Whereas the shadowy portrait of Mona Lisa is reduced to its distant recognition value as the image becomes a depiction of memory, Polke’s idiosyncratic painterly method disrupts the coherence of the printed image, becoming as enamored with the dots as with the female subject they collectively seek to represent. Through the multiple layering of grids of spots, contours are reduced to stark silhouettes while subtle variances in tone and hue are reduced to a matrix of offsetting shimmering black-and-white dots.
As Bernard Marcadé writes, “While Gerhard Richter radically separated his ‘figurative’ paintings from his ‘abstract’ paintings, Polke always took great care not to favor one side over the other and to let these two pictorial paradigms interpenetrate and contaminate each other.” (Bernard Marcadé in Exh. Cat., Musée de Grenoble, Sigmar Polke, November 2013 - February 2014, p. 17) The present work makes transparent the construction of his image, Polke appears not only to acknowledge the historical relevance and parameters of painterly convention, but also sets out to challenge and extend them. This is the key to the success of this painting, instilling its refinement of the rasterbild process balanced with a symphony of colors that radiate from the canvas.
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