Lot 59
  • 59

Sigmar Polke

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
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  • Sigmar Polke
  • Untitled
  • signed; signed and dated 85 on the stretcher; signed and dated 85/93 on the reverse 
  • mixed media on fabric
  • 88 1/2 x 123 1/2 in. 224.8 x 313.7 cm.
  • Executed in 1983-2006.


Michael Werner Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2006


This work is in excellent condition. Close inspection shows general wear to the fabric support inherent to its nature as found material, including a few small holes in the upper left quadrant, which are patched with the same fabric. There are scattered hairline drying cracks as is to be expected in the areas of thickest medium and impasto. In three small areas toward the lower right corner and upper right edge of the upper left quadrant, there is some lifting and cupping to the thinner white pigment that appears stable. Under ultraviolet light, there are no apparent restorations. The painting is framed in a wood strip frame.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Shrouded in a veil of mystery and captivating in its glorious concoction of sources, Untitled is an original expression of Sigmar Polke’s influential practice that has bewildered and fascinated audiences from the 1960s up to the present day. Simultaneously elusive and highly influential, the artist’s mystique has continually drawn attention from major artists and collectors alike. His seminal importance in contemporary art history has once again been confirmed with the first major retrospective of his career currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, which will travel to the Tate Modern in London and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Standing as a true testament to his radical artistic innovations of the 1980s, the present work brilliantly captures Sigmar Polke’s unwavering and utterly unique interrogation of the practice of painting.

Blending his distinctive interest in pre-modern imagery with experimental techniques, Untitled presents the viewer with a complex layering of sources and materials that would come to characterize his momentous paintings of the 1980s. After a decade that had witnessed a surge in the declaration of paintings’ death, during which time Polke himself had mostly been preoccupied with photography and film, the artist triumphantly returned to the medium with a captivatingly a-historical twist that incorporated the most unlikely of sources in the face of 1970s Minimal and Conceptual art. His reference to Old Master paintings, here evocative of the phantasmagorical work of the fifteenth-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, gave way to new perspectives on both his source imagery and its relevance in the light of contemporary artistic practices. In the present work, Polke has singled out the ladder as a potent symbol of transition that frequently features in the work of Bosch and his contemporaries as an interstitial space between peril and safety. Simultaneously symbolizing the escape to a safe haven and an act of attack, the artist draws attention to the hybridity of this allegorical motif. The two divergent meanings encapsulated within this powerful symbol of transition, are characteristic of Polke’s profound reassessment of imagery in which signification is in a state of constant flux. The ambiguity of the ladder in Untitled perfectly demonstrates how contextualization alters interpretation, a decidedly postmodern discovery that Polke explored throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, the artist cleverly refers to the religious power-structures that controlled perceptions of sacred and the profane, through his incorporation of the black outlines of a stained-glass church window.

Though Polke’s source dates back several centuries, the mysteriously captivating appearance of Untitled is an equally sophisticated response to contemporary painting. The artist’s fascination with the half-tone dot in newspaper print, which he first explored in his iconic Raster Bilder of the 1960s, evokes allusions to mechanical reproduction as foregrounded in the work of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein – two significant early influences on Polke.  Further informed by his decade-long experimentation with photography and film, the superimposition of semi-transparent figurative elements over abstract washes of paint, gives the work an almost cinematic appearance. Polke’s experiments with the chemical processes of photography have indeed found their way into his paintings, which seems to blend multiple projections of abstract and figurative elements into a new image. This salient tension between abstraction and figuration is masterfully resolved in Polke’s careful juxtaposition of imagery, materials and methods of application. Undermining the traditional hierarchy of these categories, the artist’s chance-based application of lush and abstract layers of paint, replicates the state of flux that is suggested in the image.

In its fusion of sources, painterly approaches and material supports, Untitled offers an utterly unique insight into the elusive but crucially important practice of one of Germany’s most influential twentieth-century artists. His reference to the equally mysterious artist Hieronymus Bosch is both visually and intellectually intriguing, and once again presents us with an absolutely archetypal work from the artist’s style-defying and multifaceted practice. As Peter Schjeldahl observed in a foreword to the artist’s 1991 travelling exhibition, “Polke’s immunity to the self-fulfilling and self-justifying imperatives of any style, in an era inundated with styles, has qualified him as an artist’s artist of and for our time.” (Peter Schjeldahl in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Daemon and Sigmar Polke, 1991, p. 18)