Coming to prominence in post-war Germany, Sigmar Polke embraced alchemy, eclecticism and wild experimentation. His paintings, drawings, collages and photography drew upon a vast array of sources, materials and techniques. For half a century, his art captured the unpredictable flux of human experience.
Polke was born in Lower Silesia during World War II and spent his early childhood in East Germany. As a teenager he fled with his family to the west, where he began to pursue his artistic interests in earnest. Polke worked as an apprentice in a stained-glass factory in Düsseldorf before embarking upon studies at the city’s art schools during the 1960s. There he found inspiration in the teachings of Joseph Beuys, and became close friends with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg.
Together with his newfound comrades, Polke co-founded the tongue-in-cheek movement known as Capitalist Realism. Under its rubric, he poked fun at society’s economic boom and the consumerist habits of the German bourgeoisie. Early works such as Schokoladenbild (Chocolate Painting) (1964) demonstrate the movement’s close ties with Pop Art.
Polke’s appropriation of ‘raster dots’ — mimicking the appearance of mass-produced printed imagery — found much in common with the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Gerald Laing. Some of Polke’s best-known works, including Freundinnen (Girlfriends) (1965–66) and Bunnies (1966), stem from this period. These paintings also account for his top prices at auction: Frau mit Butterbrot (1964) realised $17,047,500 at Christie’s in 2017.
During the 1970s, Polke began to travel the world. He focused primarily on photography, as well as producing major Stoffbilder (Fabric Paintings) such as Alice in Wonderland (1971) and Mao (1972), and large-scale collages including Supermarkets (1976).
Settling in Cologne towards the end of the decade, Polke returned to painting. Inspired by his experiments with hallucinogens during his travels, he began to incorporate a wide variety of volatile substances into his art, including silver nitrate, uranium, meteor dust, resins, lacquers and dispersion pigment. The mercurial effects they created became central to his practice, and won him the Golden Lion at the 1986 Venice Biennale.
Polke would continue to explore the relationship between reality and illusion in his Druckfehler (Printing Mistakes), Lens Paintings and other series over the next two decades. He died in 2010. His work shaped the landscape of postmodern painting, inspiring artists including Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger and David Salle.
Für den Dritten Stand bleiben nur noch die Krümel (For the third rank, there are only crumbs)
Ohne Titel (Sommerbilder I-IV) No. 1-4 (Untitled (Summer pictures I-IV) No. 1-4))