Acquired from the above by the present owner
Much of Polke’s career was dedicated to an 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 images, from the late 1980s he reversed this approach, suggesting the figurative in the abstract through a sustained enquiry into the reactive possibilities of diverse media on canvas and paper, so as to achieve a mirage-like effect. Untitled aptly displays this thrilling tension between contrasting media and forms: Polke used wooden sticks and twigs as spray paint stencils in this work, and the clean voids that their form provided – stark in the midst of diffuse clouds of black spray paint – appear not only as the most literal representation of a tree branch possible, but also as a shattering lightning bolt, jolting across the side of the composition. These brusque forms seem totally at odds with the washes of thin paint in pink and green that form the background here; Polke intentionally turned the work's surface whilst these passages of paint were still wet, so that their rivulets run in a number of directions, suffusing the work with an underlying sense of entirely abstract fluidity. Meanwhile, the haze of individual Raster-dots adds yet a further dimension, as their variance in strength gives the illusion of depth and recession; their slight skew – their lack of absolute adherence to a regular grid – only adds to a sense of crowded, almost uncomfortable, irregularity.
This application of an extraordinary range of techniques, forms, and media is unsurprising within the context of Polke’s oeuvre. He was an artist totally unafraid to incorporate even the most outlandish of materials into his practice: natural resin, found fabric featuring garish prints, or heat reactive paint. In the 1960s, he made a series of Food Art using potatoes and liver sausage, and later even used radioactive material in the development of some of his photographs, which gave them a distinctive pink tint. We are reminded of the assessment made by the commissioner of the West German Pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennale, Dierk Stemmler: “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 exemplifies the manner in which Sigmar Polke privileged ambiguity over clarity and accident over accuracy, producing works 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 elude association with conventional art historical movements and transcend the boundaries of traditional painting. They exist instead as extraordinary essays in alchemical mark-making, chromatic contrast, and formal juxtaposition, forever teasing the boundaries between figuration and abstraction and perennially denying the viewer an easy and straightforward interpretation.
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