Lot 7
  • 7

SIGMAR POLKE | Autounfall (Car Crash) or The Three Sisters

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Sigmar Polke
  • Autounfall (Car Crash) or The Three Sisters
  • signed on the reverse; titled The Three Sisters on the stretcher
  • acrylic on canvas
  • 49 by 58 cm. 19 1/4 by 22 7/8 in.
  • Executed in 1967.


Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2002


New York, Michael Werner Gallery; and Cologne, Galerie Michael Werner, Sigmar Polke: Frühe Arbeiten, November 1995 - March 1996, n.p., illustrated in colour (Cologne; titled Drei Schwestern)

Catalogue Note

Demonstrating a consummate balance between figuration and abstraction, Sigmar Polke’s Autounfall (Car Crash) from 1967 belongs to the artist’s iconic 1960s Rasterbilder (Raster Paintings): paintings that formed part of Polke’s crucial Capital Realist period. In the present work, the newspaper source image has been blurred to the point that the titular car crash is barely recognisable. The surrounding typewritten copy has been transformed into a myriad of raster dots, leaving the context of the image deliberately vague and ambiguous. Presenting a visual disorientation that became the basis of the artist’s greater practice over the next five decades, the present work distils Polke’s early and ground-breaking achievements in conveying oscillating distortions of reality. By appropriating mass-media imagery found in mass printed media, Polke radically unpicks the mechanically reproduced image’s claim to objective truth as well as its presented cultural value. As art historian Donald Kuspit has suggested, “Polke uses abstraction – a kind of abstract if mechanical process – to punch holes in the representation of social reality – the dots are so many holes undermining the image they form – suggesting that it is a mass deception” (Donald Kuspit cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 – 2010, 2014, p. 74). With Autounfall, Polke ultimately inverts the mechanically reproduced function of the halftone printing dot. As the viewer approaches the canvas, the image gradually diffuses into an abstract composition; an event that serves to emphasise the fluidity of the newspaper’s visual narrative. In the absence of any recognisable writing or text, Polke detaches the image from its seemingly objective framework and repositions it within a new openwork context. The newspaper image and its narrative purpose thus dissolves before the viewer’s eyes. Polke himself remarked: “I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about. The way that motifs change from recognisable to unrecognisable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open…” (Sigmar Polke cited in: Ibid.). While the image aesthetically replicates the process used in newspaper printing, the dots collectively take on an abstract and painterly pictorial quality via the image’s distinctly handmade facture. 

The title of the present work, Autounfall, echoes Andy Warhol’s own Car Crash works from his Death and Disaster series of the early 1960s. However, where Warhol mechanically screenprinted newspaper images onto canvas to reveal the morbid entertainment value of tragic disasters in the popular imagination, Polke painstakingly hand-painted the dot-matrix of his chosen newspaper image as a means to critique the dreary ubiquity of the mechanically reproduced image. The mistakes resulting from the artist’s handmade method, such as paint drips, differences in the scale of spots, or areas where the pressure of Polke’s brush was lighter or heavier, invest these works with a roughness that echoes the bomb-wreckaged landscape of post-war Europe. In contrast to the glossy superficiality of the American dream and its replication by artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol, Polke’s Rasterbilder are pessimistic recapitulations of capitalist culture and belong entirely to the cultural milieu of post-war Germany.

Situated at the apogee of Polke’s breakthrough moment, Autounfall is a work of prescient artistic and political rigour. This work was created when Polke was operating under name of Capitalist Realism: a movement inaugurated by Polke, Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner, that combined East German Socialist Realism with American Pop. Although sometimes thought of as Germany’s answer to Pop art, Capitalist Realism emerged from a socio-political context utterly at odds with its American relation. Founded in Berlin, the movement straddled both East German Socialism and the West’s newly Americanised and booming capitalist economy. The present work thus speaks to the technical advances of its time whilst critiquing the banality of West German consumerism in the wake of the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ (‘Economic Miracle’). In taking on the imagery of consumer culture from a distinctly pessimistic vantage point, Polke’s 1960s Rasterbilder analyse the political, social and cultural milieu of post-war Germany. Recognising that the allegedly faultless repetition of reprographic processes was a naïve pursuit of the mechanical age, Autounfall is a powerful demonstration of Polke’s subversive practice. By hand crafting images gleaned from a booming culture of streamlined efficiency and seemingly flawless automation, Polke was able to critique contemporaneous politics through the slippery mutability of appearance in paint.

We are most grateful to Mr. Michael Trier, Artistic Director from the Estate of Sigmar Polke, for the information he has kindly provided.