Constant throughout the variations in Polke's artistic methodology was a dedicated interest in the formal and theoretical elements that differentiate abstraction from figuration. While initially this fascination was made manifest in the artist's abstraction of figurative cultural images, in the late 1980s and early 1990s Polke reversed his approach, suggesting the figurative in the abstract through a sustained inquiry into the reactive possibilities of diverse materials and the possibilities of color to create a mirage on the surfaces of his canvases. Untitled displays this thrilling tension between abstraction and figuration, with the outlines of elegantly elongated figures and an ambiguously anthropomorphic sketch contrasting and merging with the opalescent washes of color that adorn the canvas surface. The juxtaposition between the precise draftsmanship of the figures and the arcs of iridescent colors from which they emerge results in a striking yet harmonious visual dichotomy, as the viewer perceives glimpses of detail amidst areas of complex tonal hues. 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 West German Pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennale, 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)
Untitled glows incandescently with radioactive magnetism. 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. As pearlescent torrents of yellow and green burst from the center of the painting and splinter across the surface, they are met by gleaming pools of silver and white; we are made privy to Polke’s most gestural and pictorially compelling painterly flourish. Untitled 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, whose properties are evoked by the metallic alchemical surface of Untitled.
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. 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, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke, 1990, p. 13)
The present work vitally illustrates how the elusive Polke privileged ambiguity over clarity, producing work of astonishing diversity and versatility throughout his career and forging a painterly language that was utterly unique in its embrace of innovative artistic forms and ideas. Polke’s works teasingly defy categorization, eluding association with conventional art historical movements in favor of an extraordinarily eclectic stylistic language. The artist transcended the boundaries of traditional painting, moving into fascinatingly unpredictable dominions of creative experimentation, whilst imbuing his works with a sense of subtle satire and humor. Polke challenged us to unravel the riddles he presented on canvas, yet did so in an enigmatic way that ultimately leaves interpretation a matter of personal subjectivity.
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