We take a look at the life of the eccentric and experimental artist, whose work is currently on show at Tate Modern

  • Black and white photograph of Pakistani men sitting in a room, with colourful felt tip markings over the top
    Sigmar Polke
    Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan) 1974–1978

1941 Sigmar Polke is born in the middle of the Second World War, on 13 February, in Oels – now part of Poland but then in Germany. After the war, the family flees to East Germany.

1953 The Polke family surreptitiously crosses over to West Berlin in a subway carriage – the 12-year-old Sigmar pretends to be asleep to create the appearance of normality. They settle in the prosperous Rhineland.

1959–61 Trains as a glass painter and mosaic maker. He continued to use translucent materials throughout his life, including paintings in which you can see the stretcher bars through the material.

1961–7  Studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where the artist Joseph Beuys is the most revered professor, although Polke disavowed his influence.

1963 Organises an exhibition in a former butcher’s shop in Düsseldorf with fellow students Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg. They declare the exhibition to be the first showing of ‘capitalist realism’ – parodying both socialist realism, the official art of the Soviet Union, and the consumer culture offered by the West. Unlike the glossy, mechanical pictures of packaging and brands created by Andy Warhol, Polke shows the banal reality of consumerism in paintings such as The Sausage Eater.

Dot drawing side on portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald
Sigmar Polke
Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) 1963

Also in this year Polke paints his first raster painting, blowing up the dots used to print images in newspapers and magazines. While Roy Lichtenstein’s similar images are clean and methodical, Polke paints his dots using the tip of a pencil eraser, giving them a handmade roughness in which the image starts to break up.

1968 Polke opens a show called ‘Moderne Kunst’ (Modern Art) at Galerie René Block in Berlin. Paintings made between 1967 and 70, such as Modern Art 1967 or The Higher Powers Command: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black! 1969 quote and confront the language of abstraction associated with artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Paul Klee or Jackson Pollock.

1970s Polke moves to the countryside at Willich, western Germany, where he lives with a group of friends, including fellow artists. They produce several collaborative works.

1974 Travels to Pakistan and Afghanistan – popular destinations for Western hippies – and uses his photographs from this trip as the basis for a number of manipulated photographic and painted works. He experiments with drugs, later saying the experiences proved helpful for his work.

1980–81 Travels to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia. Returns from the trip with new ideas about colours and scale and embarks on a new phase of work.

1980s Experiments with eccentric materials and chemicals – including meteor dust, gold, snail juice and uranium – mixing together traditional pigments with solvents, varnishes, toxins and resins to produce spontaneous chemical reactions. Despite his rising international profile – along with fellow German painters including Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz – he continues to live modestly, working prolifically without an assistant.

Mid-1990s Begins work on a new series called Druckfehler, or ‘Printing errors’, inspired by printing mistakes found in newspapers. Fascinated by the relationship between the random mistake and the original image, he enlarges and manipulates the distorted newsprint. He then paints the image onto a polyester surface with the aid of a projector, and coats it in layers of resin. Buried within this elaborate surface are sheets of gold mesh, creating yet another filter through which the image must be read.

2003 Solo show at Tate Modern.

2006 Drawing on his training as a glass painter, Polke designs stained glass windows for the Grossmünster in Zurich.

2010 Dies aged 69.

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010 is on display at Tate Modern until 8 February 2015


I visited this exhibition just after the Marlene Dumas one. what a comparison!

Whereas i found the Dumas quite stunning, I found the Polke works quite superficial and thoroughly boring.

Excellent .It was fascinating to see how he developed over the years.