Lot 14
  • 14

Sigmar Polke

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
3,132,500 USD
bidding is closed


  • Sigmar Polke
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 98
  • acrylic and artificial resin on polyester fabric, in artist's frame
  • 59 x 51  1/4  inches


Michael Werner Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1998

Catalogue Note

With an acute ability to create idiosyncratic pictorial systems that deconstruct the finite boundaries between aesthetic genres, Sigmar Polke has reshaped the conventions of painting and its relationship with contemporary media. Utilizing fabric, acrylic and artificial resin to hypnotic effect, the artist’s arresting Untitled from 1998 evidences his ultimate alchemical mastery. The traditional opacity of canvas has here been replaced by a curiously translucent body which, as tangible object rather than two dimensional support, allows enigmatic forms to sit staggered within layers of the unique pictorial space that it creates. Evoking vibrant cosmic eruptions and paranormal effusions, Polke contrasts a free abstraction with typically quotidian illustration providing a striking paradigm of the artist’s distinctive hybrid aesthetic. It is through this materially sensitive collision of visual modes, arguably his greatest gift to the history of painting, that Polke undermines didactic claims to the legibility of images and reconfigures the historic narratives of visual culture.

Born in Poland in 1941, Polke came of age in a political and ideological environment rife with conflict and division in the critical decades following the second World War. In 1963, when he was just twenty-two years old, Polke and his contemporaries Gerhard Richter, Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg, staged a direct response to the climate of their upbringings by initiating the radical stylistic notion of Kapitalischer Realismus (‘Capitalist Realism’); a pithy riposte to the state-sponsored ‘Socialist Realism’ of the German Democratic Republic as well as the aesthetics of consumer culture that dominated Western Europe. Growing up in the shadow of Nazi Germany, Polke was naturally acutely sensitive to the sinister potential of a dogmatic attitude towards image creation, an understanding that propelled him to invent a visual idiom that would undermine the new iterations of ‘propaganda’ that had developed in visual media on both sides of the Iron Curtain. From its outset, Polke’s cooly sardonic symbols and seemingly nonsensical arrangements interrogated the idea of images as harbingers of a legible aesthetic truth, as well as their ability to embody fixed cultural meaning in an increasingly diverse and referential aesthetic arena.

Between 1980-1981, Polke embarked on an exploratory journey that would have a profound impact on his practice. After having travelled to Afghanistan, Brazil and Pakistan in the 1970s, he sought inspiration in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, and Thailand, among other destinations in South East Asia and Oceania. Here Polke was exposed to an array of material forms and artistic practices that radically altered his conception of color:  “how, for example, Hinduism explains and uses color or how Australians use color.”  (the artist cited in “Poison is Effective; Painting Is Not: Bice Curiger in Conversation with Sigmar Polke,” Parkett, No. 26, 1990, p. 19) Chasing an essential vibrancy, the artist pushed his work into new realms of tonal experimentation by expanding the scope of his use of materials, at times turning to unstable chemical substances. Polke described: “I was looking for brilliance of color, and it happened to be toxic.” (Ibid., p. 20) It was through such material experimentation that Polke arrived at the unique physical form of the present work.

Testifying to Polke’s longstanding penchant for incorporating mass-produced fabrics into his paintings, here he adapts as his ground a semi-translucent mesh with a metallic weave running through it that bears the multi-hexagonal tessellation. The regimented geometry of the weave chimes against the free flowing and amorphous hued clouds that curiously develop behind it.  This unconventional ground serves to destabilize the very idea of prescriptive pictorial modes. Crucially, Polke’s use of thick resin gives a unique translucent density to the work and opens up the possibility for captivating ocular phenomena to emerge as colors and forms can be staggered at varying depths. The luscious depth of the gelatinous honeycomb construction bristles with a visceral appeal; the yellow resin, infused with explosions of seeping red and green, catches the light in its kaleidoscopic prismed structure and emits an auratic glow. These pigments, in conjunction with brief instances of partial opacity created by Polke’s judicious use of a cloudy white, appear to float freely in the imagined atmosphere of the present work’s surface. By contrast the thick black lines that construct the enigmatic male figure are prominently imprinted upon our perceptive field, being the only forms painted directly on the surface that we face, and therefore signifying a proper frontal view that would otherwise be left to interpretation. With the added element of playful theatricality imbued in the glistening golden strands, Polke creates not simply a painting but a technically astute construction which recalls the sequential layering and latent dramaturgy of the nineteenth century diorama.

Evidenced in the composition of the central figure is the significance of sentimental kitsch and playful draftsmanship in Polke’s oeuvre. The artist consciously draws from a visual lexicon typical of nineteenth century illustration that developed concurrently with the birth of the Avant-Garde and the evolution of abstract painting. The Victorian cartoon, in its inherently informative and often melodramatic function, grew to be seen as an embodiment of all that is antithetical to Fine Art. Surrealist Max Ernst had already irreverently satirized the genre with his novels Une semaine de bonté and La femme 100 têtes, which cut up and reconstructed such imagery, and which Polke continually drew from as an encyclopedia for source imagery. As such, Polke’s art is a multilayered commentary on all that has informed contemporary visual culture: “I like it when my art includes references to the past, to my roots. I cannot forget what my precursors have done. Even if the results look new, as far as I am concerned, as an artist I’m following an academic path. I like tracking down certain pictures, techniques and procedures. It is a way of understanding what is largely determined by tradition.” (the artist cited in Martin Gayford, “Weird Intelligence,” in Modern Painters 16, No. 4, 2003, p. 78) Polke, however, employs a distinctly non-narrative function for his central figure who is decidedly dislocated from the accompanying scene. Compounded by the fact that the work bears no descriptive title, this absence of context typifies Polke’s indulgence in the ambiguities of random aesthetic selection. As such, Untitled welcomes a sense of the absurd that launches a pointed interrogation of the semantics of imagery. As Prudence Carlson has commented, Polke’s work expresses “a mixed fascination with and contempt for the ‘instrumentaria’ of knowledge.” (Exh. Cat., New York, David Nolan Gallery, Sigmar Polke: Drawings from the 1960s, 1987, pp. 8-9) Most crucially, here Polke’s expressly banal figure has been wholly subsumed within the metaphysical realm of high abstraction in a subversive marriage of two traditionally antithetical traditions. Quintessentially yielding a poignant harmony within this inherent discord, Polke’s Untitled embodies the anti-art sentiments that give such historic significance to his pictorial radicalism.