Strand is an early 'Rasterbild' (Raster-dot painting) made by Sigmar Polke at the height of his so-called 'Capitalist Realist' years in 1966. A semi-abstract painting of a seemingly banal subject (a beach full of holiday-makers) drawn from the German media, it is a' Pop Art' work of deliberate ambiguity that mocks both its subject matter and the manner of its representation.
Polke's Rasterbilder are works that exploit the raster-dot technique of printing as a way as of subverting and bringing into question the apparent truth, validity and purpose of the media images that his paintings appropriate. In the 1960s the rastering process was the sole printing process available to the commercial media for the reproduction of a clear photographic image. Using screens of tiny dots, lines and other patterns were layered onto a lined plate in order to give the printed image an appearance of tone. When viewed, these tones combine in the mind's eye to form a cohesive and recognisable image. In the newspapers of the time, the abstract dotted surface of a printed image appeared visible to the naked eye, but despite the evident artifice of the medium, the mechanically-produced image, like the newspapers themselves, still carried with it an authority that it portrayed a true and accurate picture of the world. It was this authority that Polke's Rasterbilder consciously challenged. In them the artist deliberately manipulated the raster technique, magnifying the dots, distorting them, and, as in Strand, inverting the black-and-white dot pattern, in order to create a clear ambiguity that disrupts the cohesiveness of the image and opens it up to new ways of being understood. Anticipating much of his later work with the layering of multiple imagery, in his Rasterbilder Polke threw the process by which we see and interpret the world wide open by revealing the essentially artificial and abstract methods by which all imagery is understood.
This deliberate upsetting of the clarity and stability of the image was in part a political act. Unlike Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein - the two American Pop artists whose similar adoption and manipulation of media imagery at this time was perhaps closest to that of the 'Capitalist Realist' painters Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke - the German artists' decision to paint from photography embodied an element of protest. Where Warhol and Lichtenstein celebrated the mass media, elevating its imagery and means of reproduction to the status and realm of 'high art', Richter and Polke's work was more of a critique or an exposé. The essential reason for this was one of the cultural difference between America and West Germany at this time. After twelve years of Nazi rule and the subsequent partition of the country into East and West, Germany had found itself at the heart of the ideological battle of the Cold War. As a result, and in direct contrast to those living in 'the Land of the Free', many young West Germans had an innate distrust of the media as an authoritarian tool of propaganda that was born out by long experience.
In the 1960s West Germany had come to define itself as culturally different from East Germany in terms of its of the Wirtschaftwunder - the 'economic miracle' it had undergone since the Post-War partition of the country. Bolstered by military and economic support from the Capitalist West, West Germany had grown into one of the leading economies in Europe. As if to support this growing sense of its new identity and distinguish it from the Communist East, the West German popular press was often full of images of its nation's prosperity. As Strand, and another important work from this period Schlittschuhläufer demonstrate, ski scenes and beach holidays were a favourite motif.
Having grown up in East Germany Polke and Richter were both particularly aware of this propagandizing tendency of the West German media to flaunt the conspicuous consumption and recreation of its citizens. Seeing through the artifice of the media with eyes attuned to both a political and a 'Pop' sensibility, it was often the apparently banal seemingly politically unaffiliated but actually culturally defining images from the German media that they chose to paint. From West German and American fighter jet fighters, businessmen exposed as former Nazis and popular beach scenes to family holiday snaps, bunny girls, murdered housewifes, bourgeois interiors, food advertisements or pictures of new housing developments, Richter and Polke's apparently random selection of banal subject matter drawn from the West German press seems, in hindsight to be more sharply focused on the nation's attempt to define itself than even the artists at the time realised.
Calling themselves 'Capitalist Realists' in a mock parody of the East Germany's state-imposed style of 'Socialist Realism', Polke and Richter along with Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg inaugurated this pseudo art movement in Düsseldorf in 1963 in an action/exhibition that they entitled Life with Pop - A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism. An ironic response to the so-called 'Americanisation' of West German culture and the development of Pop art, this event emphasised the commodifying culture of the West by taking place in a furniture store where both the art and the artists themselves were exhibited as saleable commodities amidst the other purchasable products on sale in the store. "Pop art recognises the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomena' the artists stated, and it 'turns their attributes, formulations and content, through artifice, into art. It thus fundamentally changes the face of modern painting and inaugurates an aesthetic revolution. Pop art has rendered conventional painting - with all its sterility, its isolation, its artificiality, its taboos and it rules - entirely obsolete, and has rapidly achieved international currency and recognition by creating a new view of the world" (Gerd Richter, Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, 'Letter to a Newsreel Company', 29 April 1963).
In Richter's blurring of his paintings from photographs and in Polke's exaggerated distortion of the raster process in his paintings, both artists were creating work that drew attention to the artifice of all imagery and reproduction and also to the use of this artifice by the mass-media for propaganda. Believing all ideology to, as Richter put it, 'seduce and exploit uncertainty' and 'legitimize war' both painters wished their work to remain open, ambiguous and politically unaffiliated to any ideology, program or style. Towards this end they operated within the gap that opened up between the photographic image and the subject it represented. Neither abstract nor figurative but existing simultaneously as either, neither or both, both Richter and Polke found a way through painting in which the conventions of seeing and reading an image were exposed and challenged. "I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about.' Polke said of one of his Rasterbilder in 1966. 'The way that motifs change from recognisable to unrecognisable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open...Lots of dots vibrating, resonating, blurring, re-emerging, thoughts of radio signals, radio pictures and television come to mind" (Polke quoted in D. Hülsmanns, 'Kultur des Rasters. Ateliergesprach mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke,' in Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966).
In Strand the thousands of figures happily holidaying on the beach seem mirrored by the thousands of raster dots proliferating on the surface of the canvas - two states of reality inextricably intertwined. Seen as an abstract pattern, the raster dots take on a whimsical character building and combining according to some strange alchemy into clusters and constellations in accordance with the pictorial requirements of the photograph they purport to reproduce. Polke has consciously brought the work to a state of resolution where the photographic image hovers at the point of recognisability vying with the frenetic abstract patterning of the raster dots for dominance. In later works Polke would embrace the seemingly crazy schismatic meandering of form suggested by the raster dots, following its path intuitively into new areas of creation and layers of interpretation. The dots in a way became a guide for him and he would return to the use of the raster dots repeatedly throughout his career, even coming to identify himself (through the 'Polke-dot') and his artistic path with them.
"I love all dots", he has said, "With many dots I am married. I want all dots to be happy. The dots are my brothers. I am also a dot. Earlier we used to play together, today everybody goes their own way. We only meet now and again at family gatherings and ask: how are you?" (Polke quoted in Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., Hannover 1966, p. 35).