Sigmar Polke

German Painter, Sculptor, Photographer, Filmmaker, Performance and Conceptual Artist

Born: February 13, 1941
Silesia, Poland
Died: June 10, 2010
Cologne, Germany
The conventional definition of reality, and the idea of 'normal life', mean nothing.

Summary of Sigmar Polke

Multi-media artist, Sigmar Polke, had the capacity to be at once irreverent, playful, and acerbic. From painting to photography and film to installations and prints, Polke's work, which often incorporated non-traditional materials and techniques, was above all a critique of art itself. Sometimes veiled and sometimes confrontational, the messages conveyed in his work raise serious questions about aesthetic, political, and social conventions. For Polke, the production of art was consistently a dialogue between himself and the viewer, which presented virtually limitless interpretive possibilities. Along with a group of fellow artists that included Gerhard Richter, he introduced the term, Capitalist Realism, which refers loosely to commodity-based art. Further, and specifically in the case of Polke's work, Capitalist Realism constitutes not only a critique of Pop art and the commodification of art and capitalism overall but also of the idealistic and overtly nationalistic Soviet Social Realism that Polke was particularly exposed (and opposed) to.


Progression of Art


Chocolate Painting

This work, painted while Polke was still a student, demonstrates the strong influence Pop art had over the artist in his formative years. Since Pop art had not become a phenomenon in Germany at that point, Polke's exposure to it was largely via its dissemination in art magazines and newspapers. Monika Wagner has argued that this painting added to the breadth of Pop art's subject matter by "expand[ing] the iconography of food to include everyday meals." However, while American Pop was primarily concerned with brands and consumer goods, Polke instead chose to represent an unbranded chocolate bar that had already been opened, implying a different and perhaps a more subtle sensibility to that found in Andy Warhol's iconic and untouched Campbell's soup cans, for example.

Having escaped from post-war, communist East Germany to the West, Polke always viewed the commodities of capitalism in contrast to his own personal knowledge of the restrictions of communism. He once claimed, "When I came to the West, I saw many, many things for the first time. But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn't really Heaven." This dual criticism of capitalism and communism came to the fore in the Capitalist Realist movement he co-launched the year before this work was executed.

The Capitalist Realist movement mocked the Socialist Realist style of art endorsed by the Soviet Union, which dominated the art of many communist countries. Typically, Socialist Realism was openly nationalistic. Most often, art produced in this style -- the only art sanctioned by the state -- emphasized loyalty to the communist party and featured content that promoted party ideology. Polke exposes the bright, idealism of Socialist Realism as well as Western consumerism in this work. Chocolate Painting is a confluence of seemingly opposing ideologies: this chocolate bar, sans label, becomes a sort of signifier for banality, uniformity, and uncritical consumption. It mocks the sometimes sickeningly sweet imagery of Socialist Realism and blurs the line between the consumer and the ideology of consumption.

Enamel paint on canvas - Glenstone Foundation, Potomac, Maryland



Polke's Bunnies is composed using a dot technique that characterizes several of his paintings completed in the mid-1960s. The technique is a clear reference to the popular dot paintings by Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, who used dots derived from the Ben-Day dots printing process, but exaggerated and enlarged them for impact. However, while Lichtenstein's works use dots to delineate and simplify a composition, Polke's dots -- sometimes humorously termed "Polke dots" -- function to distort and obscure his subjects. Polke's dot technique is known as Rasterbilder, referring to a method of dot printing using a raster screen. Eternally interested in processes of production and reproduction, Polke destabilizes the (usually reliable) printing process by introducing irregularly sized dots and additional colors.

In Bunnies, his subject is a group of women provocatively dressed in the style of Playboy Bunnies. Although from a distance the women appear to be attractive, upon closer inspection their facial features dissolve into a set of colored circles that appear more monstrous than human. Polke erases the women's individual identities, thus pointing out what he regarded as the objectification inherent in such images.

In this work, Polke is playing with the audience's usual reactions to such images. Magazines such as Playboy present women as physically appealing sexual objects, enticing the viewer to look closer at high-definition photographs in portable formats. By placing his large image (59 x 39.5 inches) on the wall of a gallery and drawing the viewer in to scrutinize the women's bodies in the public space of the museum, Polke makes the viewer feel uncomfortable and forces them to confront their habitual modes of viewing.

Acrylic on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC


Potato House

Although he is best known for his experiments in painting and photography, Polke also created a number of sculptures over the course of his career. One of the best known such works is his Potato House, a flat-pack, lattice structure studded with real potatoes. The "house" plays with the visual tropes of Minimalism, which frequently made use of cubes, grids, and reductive representations of shelters. However, Polke adds an organic element usually missing from Minimalist works, using his ornamental potatoes to poke fun at the movement's sobriety.

Potatoes make an appearance in multiple works by Polke. In postwar Germany, potatoes were a staple in the diets of most people and are emblematic of the drab, devastated country in the war's aftermath. A close friend of the artist, publisher and psychologist, Friedrich Wolfram Heubach commented on Polke's use of potatoes in his work in a 1976 essay. He wrote, "If there is anything that embodies every aspect of the artist that has ever come under discussion -- love of innovation, creativity, spontaneity, productivity, creation complete from within oneself, etc. -- it is the potato."

Not unlike the wry visual commentary of his Chocolate Painting, here Polke demonstrates his artistic interest in unbranded, everyday foodstuffs; potatoes were a staple food in deprived post-war Germany, and Polke features them in several artworks. In this work, the potato structure can be seen either as sheltering or caging the viewer, who is invited to step inside. By entering the work, the viewer becomes, quite literally, an insider who engages in actively transforming the meaning of the piece, including challenging conventional prohibitions concerning the propriety of actually touching art.

Potato House raises an interesting curatorial issue: The potatoes, being organic and perishable, must be provided by each museum that chooses to exhibit the work. They must also be replaced before they begin to sprout, shrivel, or rot. Polke was notoriously disdainful of the institutional nature of museums and this work functions as a challenge to both curators and museum-goers. In a sense, this work is not unlike the traditional vanitas images in which food and flowers, for instance, seem to be spoiling and wilting before our eyes, reminding us of how fleeting life is.

Painted wooden lattice and potatoes - Michael Werner Gallery, New York/Berlin


Telepathic Session II (William Blake-Sigmar Polke)

This work consists of two canvases, one labeled Sender (sender) and one Empfänger (receiver). Some of the squares are labeled Ja (yes) and Nein (no). The title suggests that the two canvases are intended to be used as a medium for telepathic communication, in this case between the artist himself and William Blake, a revolutionary poet, artist and printer who died in Britain in 1827. In the 1960s, interest in Blake and his fantastical semi-prophet works was being revived, positing him as a visionary forerunner to the sensibility of psychedelia gaining popularity at the time.

The arrangement of Telepathic Session is reminiscent of the early computers that were first being utilized in the 1960s, which featured a series of wires and plugs that enabled users to ask and answer "yes" or "no" questions. The piece might also remind the viewer of a child's facsimile telephone made of tin cans and string, a simple, mechanical, acoustical device that transfers sound waves along the line from one point to the other. Such a seemingly primitive device enables communication while still emphasizing the connection between the two parties -- the speaker and the listener. The composition hints that the artist has combined these forms of communication to create a highly elusive connection, that of telepathy, which was being explored during the 1960s by parties as disparate as experimental drug users and Cold War military powers.

Lacquer on two canvases with cords - Rheingold Collection, Düsseldorf


The Large Cloth of Abuse

To create this work, Polke painted a series of German swear words and abusive terms onto several stitched-together sheets of flannel. His calligraphy is accomplished with dripping black paint, which is clearly reminiscent of the drip-style paintings of Jackson Pollock who had risen to fame in the 1950s. The work is an irreverent repudiation both of Abstract Expressionism and of its successor, Conceptual Art, whose exponents frequently used language as a primary medium for their art. Polke does so by cutting through the pretext of obscure mysticism and individualism that allegedly underscored the spontaneity and automatism of Pollock's drip paintings, and similarly, by exposing the frequent pretension of Conceptual Art in its tendency to situate itself above conventional artistic production - in reality, the words painted here are ugly.

Before this work was shown in the 1976 exhibition, a survey of his oeuvre from 1962 to 1971, Polke had his photograph taken wearing the piece as a cape. In the same exhibition, after the work had been installed, Polke insisted that it was turned to face the wall, so that viewers had to lift it up and look behind it in order to view it. By endorsing such playful interaction with his works, including touching, which is usually forbidden in galleries, Polke criticized and poked fun at the carefully controlled environment of museums and at the orthodox artists and viewers who feel uncomfortable interacting intimately with artworks. Polke once complained that society "put the things we make in these restrictive places called museums, then [doesn't] want to hear another word from us." Works such as The Large Cloth of Abuse demonstrate Polke's tendency to resist what he regarded as the inherent "restriction" he observed in the art world.

Oil on flannel - Private Collection, Cologne


Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black!

For Higher Beings Commanded, Polke painted a triangle of black lacquer in the upper right-hand corner of a canvas. His rationale for doing so is explained by a typewritten message that runs across the bottom of the canvas which reads (in German), "Higher beings commanded: painted the upper right corner black!" This is part of a series of works Polke produced in which the composition is supposedly determined by the commands of 'higher beings.'

These beings might be identified as any of a number of people or factors that held sway over Polke's career at this point. The phrase hints at divine authority or intervention, but could equally apply in a tongue-in-cheek way to governmental powers or, on a level closer to home, the administration and teachers at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy where he was a student for many years. The phrase also evokes creatures from outer space, a major preoccupation of the 1960s; Polke was certainly deeply interested in the paranormal.

The identity of these "higher beings" is left deliberately unknown, challenging the viewer to engage in the puzzle from their own point of view. They are also left to ruminate on the fact that Polke, as the artist, is the ultimate "higher being" in this case and that the decision to paint and exhibit this piece is ultimately his. In this way, Polke both obeys and undermines the concept of authority he has constructed for himself and the viewer within the artwork.

Polke also references the works by Conceptual artist, Sol LeWitt, pieces for which LeWitt would provide instructions for their productions by others -instructions that were typically inscribed directly on the wall surface. Often, teams of artists would require days or even weeks to produce the works according to the artist's instructions. In this way LeWitt raised questions about authorship and Polke, in turn makes light of the quandary.

Lacquer on canvas - Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart


Dr Bonn

In this painting, Polke refers to the recent deaths of Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe, members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof, a left-wing German terrorist group. The pair had been found dead in their jail cells and it was reported that they had committed suicide. A faceless bureaucrat sits at his desk under the watchful gaze of two recognizable portraits of the terrorists. He appears to be attempting to kill himself, but will inevitably bungle the attempt as he holds a slingshot rather than a gun to his head. The bureaucrat is named Dr. Bonn, after the capital of Western Germany at the time.

Polke's composition is reminiscent of a subversive cartoon that might be found in a newspaper, criticizing the government's unconvincing story that the two terrorists committed suicide. However, Polke chose to present his image on a slash of paint which illuminates the illustration like a search beam, as if the artwork is attempting to shed light on the situation. It is set on a background of checked, woolen fabric such as might be used for a suit jacket and suggestive of the uniform of a functionary or bureaucrat, of respectability and minor authority. Here Polke is rejecting the blank rigidity of the traditional white canvas while simultaneously questioning the restrictive orthodoxy both of the art world and of the powers of government.

Paint on patterned wool - Groninger Museum, Groningen



This painting is one of a series by Polke which take the same stenciled watchtower as their central subject. The tower recalls those found along the fences of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany during World War II and along the Berlin Wall, which divided East from West Germany until 1989. Polke's watchtower is illuminated by a ghostly light and the effect is one of haunting poignancy.

Polke used a photographic process in which a chemical reaction using silver oxide produces a shimmering effect. Green and purple overtones make up the structure of the watchtower, which can be seen only from limited vantage points. When the watchtower is visible to the viewer, it shimmers as if it might disappear just as quickly. This effect emphasizes the sinister uncertainty that constant surveillance provokes: You are being watched but you cannot always be certain by whom and from what elusive perch.

As it is painted on a commercially printed piece of brightly patterned fabric, Watchtower still maintains an element of the Pop art that influenced him in the early 1960s. Characteristically, Polke takes a cheap piece of design work and elevates it to the status of art, which, as a successful artist, he knows will sell for a large sum of money. Polke famously sold his works for arbitrarily high prices; one collector speculated that the artist set prices by "doubling his age and adding three noughts."

Synthetic paint and dry pigment on patterned fabric - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Biography of Sigmar Polke


Sigmar Polke was born in Oels, a small town in Lower Silesia, Poland. He was one of eight children and though his father was an architect, according to Polke, the family had very little money. Born in the middle of World War II, he remembers the "trauma" of the war, which "dominated [his] childhood." Polke recalled his engagement with art in this early years, "I began drawing as a very young child and had a grandfather who experimented with photography, so those things constituted my first exposure to art."

Like thousands of other Germans living in contended areas of Poland, the family was expelled from the country at the end of the War in 1945 and escaped to Thuringia, East Germany. In 1953, when he was 12 years old, Polke succeeded in crossing the border from East to West Germany, thus escaping the harrowing post-war years in communist German Democratic Republic.

It has been suggested that Polke's father may have worked, whether willingly or not, as an architect for the Nazis, which may complicate further the artist's references to both the Nazi reign of terror and Germany's repressive silence following the Holocaust. Polke's work includes images from a publication on eugenics that had influenced Hitler and his followers; the familiar Nazi symbol, the swastika, appears in some of his works as well. According to one source, Polke "once broke into a Düsseldorf gallery at night and installed a slideshow of ex-Nazi leaders under a banner that read, 'Art Will Make You Free'," a direct reference to the words displayed on a sign over the entrance to the concentration camp, Auschwitz: "Work Will Make You Free."

Early Training

In 1959, Polke became an apprentice at a stained glass factory in Düsseldorf and in 1961 he enrolled at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy, where he studied until 1967. Teachers at the school included Karl Otto Gotz and Joseph Beuys, both of whom had radical approaches to the creation of art that would strongly influence the young Polke. The artist later recalled how Beuys in particular "broke up the old structure of teaching and brought new life into German art, so it was an interesting time to be there."

Mature Period

In 1963, while he was still studying in Düsseldorf, Polke co-founded the Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism) movement along with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg. Conceived of as a response to Pop art and to what Polke saw as the rigid formalism of the art world of the period, the movement parodied and criticized the trappings of both Capitalism and Communism. The group put on exhibitions, including a show in a furniture shop, where Polke and Richter sat in the shop window as exhibits themselves. Polke's first solo show was held in Rene Block's innovative new gallery in Berlin in 1966. After the show the young artist found himself, somewhat surprisingly, quickly established on Germany's experimental art scene. Turmoil in his personal life and a failed marriage prompted Polke to begin an itinerant phase of his career.

In 1971, he took to the road, traveling extensively around the world for most of the 1970s, usually alone. His wanderings took him to Paris, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South America, and the USA. He took along a camera and created a series of images documenting his travels, experimenting with photographic development and printing techniques. During this period, he is also well-known for having experimented with mind-altering drugs, including LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms, as a part of the process of producing art. When not on the road, Polke resided in an artists' commune called Gaspelshof near Düsseldorf. Although he was eventually divorced from his first wife, the artist maintained a connection with his two children, Georg and Anna, sometimes taking them along with him on his travels.

Late Period

In 1977, he was given a position as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany and remained in the post until 1991. He moved permanently to Cologne in 1978 where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life aside from when he was traveling. In the 1980s, Polke's art took on a more serious tone, eschewing the colorful Pop art and drug influenced-work, which had comprised his earlier work. At the beginning of the decade, he traveled to Australia and Southeast Asia where he discovered a variety of non-traditional materials that he used in his artworks. For instance, Polke began incorporating meteor dust and arsenic, which reacted chemically on the canvas.

The 1980s saw a significant international revival of painting as a medium and Polke was at the forefront of this, along with his former collaborator, Gerhard Richter. At the time, he married his second wife, the Berlin sculptor Augustina von Nagel. In 1986, he was awarded the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Biennale. In 1988 he became interested in Buddhist philosophies; he was inspired in part by his travels to the Far East and also by his daughter's choice to begin practicing Buddhism in the same year. Polke continued to produce art until his death in 2010, often in collaboration with his wife, and always experimenting with new materials and media including photocopies and holograms.

The Legacy of Sigmar Polke

Polke's unorthodox style proved a significant influence on a large group of younger artists, most of whom came to prominence in the 1980s when Polke was at the height of his fame and had been featured in several high-profile international exhibitions. Among the younger generation of artists who cite Polke as an inspiration are sculptor, Annette Messager and multimedia artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose work echoes Polke's own anti-authoritarianism and his interest in everyday objects and materials. Later, Polke's critical role in reviving painting practices lends him influential status with painters such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Richard Prince.

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