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. Triptych 2002 was made in this manner.
The central panel of Triptych was painted in 1997 and illustrated in the catalogue for an exhibition Polke had at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin in that year. It is flanked by two further panels made in 2002 and was formed into a triptych by the artist for his exhibition, Recent Paintings and Drawings 1998-2002, touring Dallas Museum of Art and Tate Modern (2002-4). Each of the three panels is painted in a similar manner. Thick layers of translucent resin have been applied to a transparent support, through which the structural support of the wooden stretcher is clearly visible. Polke then poured quantities of white, green and red paint directly on to the support, tilting the canvas to enable the liquid paint to flow and drip across the surface. This technique is entirely characteristic of many paintings Polke has made during the past two decades. The flow in this triptych, however, is contained within a final layer of imagery based on a greatly enlarged black and white half-tone grid, taken from a found illustration. In this triptych, unlike others he painted from the mid-1980s onwards, these expansive qualities are held in tight check by the rigorous pattern of the half-tone grid, making this triptych more than any of his others a work about the countervailing forces of chaotic flow versus ordering pattern.
Polke began this work while he was working on his series of ‘Printing Errors’, a large group of paintings he made between 1996 and 1998. These examined, much enlarged, the minute ink slippages and spillages that read as errors on the printed page. Polke made others by manipulating photocopies during the copying process to create distortions of the image he was copying. Some errors, moreover, bore close resemblances to details in the images in which they occur. The half-tone printing technique converts the visual image into a pattern of even-sized units, in this case a dotted diamond pattern. The greater or lesser quantity of black introduced into each unit reads as a tonal value. At normal printed scale these variations translate into a black and white image.
Polke’s 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).
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, reproduced p.38 in colour and pp.39-41 in colour (detail)
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