Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2002
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.
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