‘Polke drew ghosts and wanted to believe in the paranormal: art hinted at how to resist the gravitational pull of the known and the accepted…While Polke joked about seeing beyond the constraints of body and mind – past death – he also dared to imagine an ethics of vision that lifted him out of normal ways of proceeding in the here and now. He wasn’t interested in representing the great contaminated wash of what we see; he knew that was a fool’s delusional pursuit. He wanted to demonstrate how the unconscious, in combination with all other forms of knowledge, casts its shadow on how we imagine. By being aware of the fictive nature of the order we impose, by embracing ambiguity and letting go of certainty, we free ourselves of the need for - and the comfort of - a single authoritarian vision. We risk the vulnerability and alertness that accompanies a fully sentient life. This was Polke’s bequest’
Immersing the viewer in its monumentally-scaled, hallucinogenic surface, Sigmar Polke’s Flucht (blau) (Flight (blue)) of 1997 is a painting of extraordinary grandeur and drama. Executed in lacquer and resin on a fabric ground, the vast three-metre by four-metre work presents a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic fusion of chaotic abstract splashes and manipulated figurative imagery drawn from warped photocopies. The work centres on a deliberately mysterious and uncertain image that hovers in and out of recognisability: a dark, spectral figure seems to be leaping in front of a fluttering, flag-like grid of windows, an equally distorted throng of outstretched arms and hands reaching towards him. Created at a key moment in the artist’s career, the painting is one of a series of mammoth-scale works on this subject that Polke made in 1997, shown in his landmark exhibition entitled Die drei Lügen der Malerei (The Three Lies of Painting) held at the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and at the Kunst und Austellungshalle, der Bundesrepublick Deutschland, Bonn that same year. Other major works in this exhibition that played with similar painterly distortions of the same theme of a mysterious, dark, leaping figure were the five-metre-high Furcht – schwarzer Mann (Fear – Black Man) and the cover work of the show Flucht-Schwarz-Rot-Gold (Flight-Black-Red-Gold) in which Polke rendered the same evocative and phantom-like image against a background comprised of the German national colours. This move suggested to some observers at the time that the ‘Flight’ and ‘Fear’ in the titles of these works referred in some way to the recent reunification of Germany, but, as with so much of Polke’s work, any specific interpretive meaning was deliberately left open. Acquired by the present owner shortly after its creation, the work has remained in the same private collection for nearly twenty years.
The title of this large survey of his work – ‘The Three Lies of Painting’ – referred directly to one of the key enduring themes of Polke’s art: the deceptive nature of imagery. The title of the show sought to give a sense of organized process to Polke’s perpetual demonstration, through carefully manipulated, distorted, vague, deliberately error-stricken and multi-layered visuals, of how all forms of representation and image-making are little more than illusory approximations of our collective, fundamentally false concept of reality as a fixed and discernible entity. What Polke wanted his paintings to show was not just the manifest falsity and dullness of any conventionally static view of reality, but also to demonstrate, at the same time, the comparative magic, vitality and mystery that exists in more fluid and open forms of imagery that embrace and make use of chance, accident, the irrational, the undiscernible, the mysterious and the unknown. Towards this end, Polke had always made use of a wide variety of unorthodox techniques, styles and new media throughout his career. From the late 1980s onwards, he had experimented in particular with the photocopier, not as a tool of reproduction but as one of distortion and invention. Polke revelled in the bizarre and often ghostly accidents and images that could be brought forth by, for example, moving images during the course of making a photocopy. ‘I saw,’ Polke said, that the image ‘came to life more with some dirt in it, some deformations. It becomes truer like that ... they alter the form and shape of the image, and give it new overtones’ (S. Polke, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘Weird Intelligence’, in Modern Painters, Vol. 16, no. 4, 2003, p. 80).
Evoking a ghost at work in the machinery of reproduction, such errors, distortions and manipulations – like the irregularities and mistakes Polke had once played with in his raster dot paintings of the 1960s – bestowed his images with an eerie sense of life that was wholly lacking in the inert perfection of conventionally reproduced imagery. In Flucht (blau) Polke’s surface pulsates with the energy of the processes that have created it. Hovering between the abstraction of chance spills, splashes and patterns, the pull and smear of the reproduction appears to be the main subject of the picture. This motion is pictorially echoed by the vigour of the mysterious black figure and the grasping multitude of hands: perhaps we are witnessing a leap of faith, a transcendent escape from the clutches of normative reality. ‘We must create a world of free and equal phenomena’, he asserted; ‘a world in which things are finally allowed to form relationships once again, relationships liberated from the bonds of servile text-book causality and narrow-minded, finger-pointing consecution ... only in these relationships is it possible to find the true meaning and the true order of things’ (S. Polke, ‘Early Influences, Later Consequences,’ in Sigmar Polke - The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat. Berlin 1997, p. 290).