Polke’s work may be understood as an analysis of the mark-making central to two-dimensional representation. From his earliest practice, he emphasised a dynamic tension between expressive gesture, often humorously subverting its traditional subjectivity, and mechanical reproduction. His paintings combine found printed images with more organically-made painterly marks. He uses half-tone photography from newspapers and magazines, enlarging and reproducing it on canvas, often corrupting the original beyond recognition. From 1964 he began overlaying imagery on printed fabrics, creating a double layer of patterning and undermining the traditional relationship between subject and background. More recently he has been painting on transparent fabric, through which the structural support of the wooden stretchers is clearly visible. This is particularly evident in Triptych 2002 (Tate T11855).
Untitled 2003 epitomises these stylistic features. In the upper centre of the painting a group of five naked female figures stand on varying levels in an architectural setting, partially concealed behind a broad stroke of dark blue paint. They appear to be holding chalices or goblets of some kind. The image, taken from an old printed source, has been enlarged to show clearly the black benday-dots composing it. A cluster of white benday dots to the right of the painting fills a space in the illustration. To the left of the painting another cluster of white dots appears to describe a large outstretched wing attached to a naked human body bisected by the edge of the painting. The printed images overlay a composition of broad brush strokes in several shades of blue, lilac, beige and white. Beige paint, poured onto two points on the canvas, has been caused to dribble horizontally across the painting by tilting it, resulting in long parallel lines crossing the image which enhance the sense of movement within the composition. These elongated drips are characteristic of Polke’s painting of the 1990s, in which he exploited the free flow of paint to create accidental, mystical forms in his canvases. Reminiscent of the free use of paint by such American Abstract Expressionists as Jackson Pollock (1912-56), particularly in the 1940s, Polke’s knowing use of free-flowing paint in the 90s conceptually recalls earlier subversive acts. In the 1960s he mocked artistic genius (and sincere expression) by presenting himself as an agent directed by higher powers to paint in various ways as well as to direct telepathic séances with William Blake (1757-1827) and Max Klinger (1857-1920), his artistic forbears from earlier centuries.
Polke was closely associated with the short-lived German variant of Pop art called Capitalist Realism during the 1960s and continues to be associated with Pop in its wider sense. His overt reference to industrial printing processes recall the Pop paintings of American Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) whose use of benday dots in such comic strip paintings as Whaam! 1963 (Tate T00897) bears similarities to Polke’s use of half-tone texture in such paintings as Girlfriends 1965 (Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, see Tate P78769 for the print based on this painting). In the same way, in the 1960s British artist Richard Hamilton (born 1922) examined printing processes by enlarging details of photographs in such paintings as Whitley Bay 1965 (private collection), People 1965-6 (collection the artist) and the related print, People 1968 (Tate P01019). In his deconstruction of the practice and purpose of painting, conducted using the processes of painting itself, Polke shares a central concern with Andy Warhol (1928-87) whose ‘do-it-yourself’ paintings of the early 1960s proposed the redundancy of traditional concerns with composition and colour and reduced the subject and craft to a banal exercise of painting by numbers. Polke’s use of commercially produced, pre-printed fabrics, often coming off the stretchers to emphasise their status as belonging to the world of ordinary things rather than the realm of high art, and his manipulation of so many other types of printed imagery provide fresh insights into the way we look at and recognise visual language.
John R. Lane and Charles Wylie (eds), Sigmar Polke: History of Everything; Paintings and Drawings 1998-200, exhibition catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art and Tate Modern, London 2002-4
Sigmar Polke: Alchimist, exhibition catalogue, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek and Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo 2001
Sigmar Polke: Join the Dots, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, Liverpool 1995