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)
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