Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Sigmar Polke
1941 - 2010
signed and dated 85 on the reverse of the right hand panel. 
oil and lacquer on fabric, in 2 parts
each: 179.7 by 149.9 cm. 70 3/4 by 59 in.
overall: 179.7 by 299.7 cm. 70 3/4 by 118 in.
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Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above in 1988)

Sotheby’s, New York, 14 May 2008, Lot 24 (consigned by the above)

Acquired from the above by the present owner


Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum, The World of Art Today, May - August 1988, p. 100, no. 52, illustrated

Catalogue Note

Enigma, spontaneity, uncertainty, and flux – these are the central facets of Sigmar Polke’s celebrated style; direct reflections of his unique take on the impenetrable mysteries of reality, and palpable influences upon the creation of the present work. Spirale is an outstanding painting from an immensely important period of Polke’s career. It is a work of exceptional gestural vivacity that hovers between printed order and painted chaos in deliberate and unabashed ambiguity. For its idiosyncratic and evocative medium, as well as for its immense scale and rarefied execution, it should be considered in keeping with the best of this artist’s career. In its appreciation, we are reminded of that assertion made by the curator John Caldwell upon the occasion of Polke’s 1990 retrospection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: “What Polke has done is to produce paintings that seem to look back at us as by changing as we look at them, and thus allow them to have the very aura of a work of art” (John Caldwell cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke, 1990, p. 13).

 Spirale is a particularly painterly example of the works that Polke made in the 1980s using industrially produced fabric as a ground. In their production, he poured and splashed paint over the regulated patterns of the manufactured materials in a way that deliberately disrupted and subverted their geometry and rationality. Thus, in the present work, the ordered chevrons of each panel are blocked and blanked out by pools of dispersive paint. In some areas, particularly upon the left-hand panel, Polke’s mark-making appears entirely disordered, even random: rivulets of matte pigment seep and run in multiple directions and miniature flecks of white attest to paint that has been flicked and flung at the ground from a height. Yet in other passages of this work, the artist is more purposeful, even hinting at figurative modes of depiction: particularly in the right-hand panel, we can observe several face-like forms emerging from the painted chaos, including a pair that even use the predetermined structure of the zig-zag fabric as a facial framework. To this end, the spiral form in the centre of the right-hand panel, from which the title of the work is presumably derived, can be considered not only as an important precedent to Polke’s celebrated series of Dürer Loops which would debut at the Venice Biennale the following year, but also as a microcosmic motif for the entire composition: at first it appears as a jumbled scrawl of concentric circles – the product of this artist’s cursive bravura gesture, yet further examination reveals a sense of rarefied artistic intention,  pseudo-geometric exactitude, and abstruse yet precise draughtsmanship.

The 1980s were a time of extraordinary creative ferment for Polke, a decade in which he earned serious international critical consideration: in 1982 he showed at Documenta, in 1986, shortly after the creation of the present work, he represented Germany at the Venice Biennale, and in 1988 he participated in the prestigious Carnegie International. In each of these exhibitions, he pushed to transform his praxis and continue extending the limits of his chosen medium. Polke’s facture was defined by an effusive and unrelentingly inventive determination to redefine the parameters of what art could achieve, and this painting should be considered a consummate success within that endeavour. Indeed, the commissioner of the 1986 West German pavilion at the Venice Biennale 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… Incompatibilities crash into one another in enlarged extraneous-familiar spaces, functioning as intermediaries in visual dialogues with the intensity of original representations” (Dirk Stemmler cited in: Exh. Cat., Venice, Venice Biennale, General Catalogue: XLII Espozione internatianzale d’arte la biennale di Venezia, 1986, p. 276).

Spirale is an enthralling work of engaging proportions and dynamic style. It is not only an excellent example of its particular series, but also a perfect demonstration of the majesty of Polke’s 1980s style. The energy and radiance of its forms typify that judgement made of this artist by the director of the Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson: “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 Post-modern painter.” (Alex Farquharson, ‘Sigmar Polke’, Frieze Magazine, No. 81, March 2004, online).

Contemporary Art Evening Auction