Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
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Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)

Transparent #7

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
Transparent #7
signed with the artist's initials 'S.P. 88' (lower left of recto and lower right of verso)
resin on fabric with wooden stand, recto and verso
45¼ x 78¾ x 8¼in. (115 x 200 x 21.5cm.)
including wooden stand: 84 x 41¼ x 8¼in. (213 x 115 x 21.6cm.)
Executed in 1988
Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 9 December 1998, lot 5.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Sigmar Polke, 1989.

Lot Essay

Set into a display stand so that its many layers of translucent imagery are simultaneously visible from each of its two sides, Transparent no. 7 is one of the most elaborate of a fascinating series of multidimensional 'transparency' paintings that Sigmar Polke made in the late 1980s.

Extending the transmutative nature of his 1986 Venice Biennale installation of paintings that changed colour according to the moisture of the environment, Polke's 'transparency paintings' are a series of translucent pictures that culminated in 1992 with the artist's Laterna Magica ('Magic Lantern') - an extended sequence of transparent pictures set into a complete environment.

Executed in paint as well as opaque and semi-transparent resin on a semi-transparent fabric ground, Polke's transparencies' provide a constantly shifting world of abstract, figurative and decorative imagery that, like the wider, fuller and supposedly true nature of 'reality' that they attempt to depict, is presented in a constant and often confusing state of flux. They are works that perpetually change according to the position in which they are set because of the effects of the always shifting light conditions that pass through them, determining which images are distinguishable at any one time. As in the multiform imagery of his early fabric paintings, Polke was inspired, in the creation of these works, by the multiple form and sense of the interrelatedness of all phenomena that he had experienced during drug-induced hallucinations and also by the pictorial precedent set by Francis Picabia. In what has since often been regarded as a post-modernist take on the return to order style of classicism of the 1920s, Picabia between 1928 and 1932 had created his own series of 'transparency' paintings using multiple-layered images usually drawn from antiquity or early Renaissance painting. Greatly admired by Polke, it was these works that first prompted him to create a similar simultaneous layering of imagery in his own work.

But whereas the multiple imagery of Picabia's 'transparencies' is one of complex but multifaceted homogeneity, the pervasive quality of Polke's paintings is one of surprising combinations and the establishing of strange dislocated relationships. Polke's works contain and compress such a wealth of seemingly unrelated images and in such a wide variety of painterly and iconographic styles that all his disparate elements seem to weave a dense web of imagery like a television set displaying the images of twenty channels all at once. Constantly shifting between figuration, abstraction, delineation and repetitive pattern that drifts in and out of comprehension, Polke's images are ones that appear to articulate something of the extraordinarily rich but ultimately unknowable variety of all areas of human perception and experience.

Visually paralleling the sense of information overload that defines late 20th Century culture, Polke, as in this work, seemed to fuse time and history, merging cartoon faces with 18th century silhouettes, Gothic woodcuts and folk art, abstract swirls and drips of lacquered paint with modern wallpaper design.

Such a fusion of imagery seems to provide a mental picture of the universe as a constantly shifting series of images oscillating in a perpetual state of flux. In his embracing of such change, Polke's art, like the ancient 'hermetic' work of the alchemists invokes transmutation as a universal constant. To reinforce this element in his art Polke often deliberately employed ancient, obscure and unstable materials that are known to transform over time. In 1986, for example, he painted the walls of the German pavilion at the Venice Pavillion with a series of pigments highly susceptible to humidity and damp. In the moist climate of the Venetian lagoons, the result was an extremely fragile and volatile painted fresco that changed colour and texture almost by the hour. In a similar way, the transparent backgrounds of his transparency paintings and the later Magic Lantern pictures that grew out of them extend these aims into the realm of the picture frame because they too respond to and are transformed by the slightest change in light conditions. Like the moving shadows on the wall of a shadow-puppet play, the imagery that Polke has painted in a both opaque and semi-transparent lacquers on the synthetic transparent fabric in this work is constantly transformed as the light changes. Through its transparency, the front and back of the work also become confused.

Similarly, given this confusing multidimensional perspective on things, Polke has also in this work intentionally attempted to disrupt all sense of orientation. One side of this work appears to have been rendered in a different orientation to the other. On closer inspection however, images and patterns on both these sides seem at odds. The images themselves are also intentionally confused so that a prominent black outline appearing at first to delineate a four-headed dragon also renders two 18th Century style portrait silhouettes looking at one another. These faces are echoed by numerous cartoon-like faces and a sequence of circular patterns seemingly lost in the middle depths of this multiple-layering of imagery. '[The picture has] ceased to be a view, or a window, or a mirror. It seems rather to be the culmination of all these possibilities. For the first time in the history of painting, the picture emerges as something that retains only the loosest connection with its support. It seems to have become temporarily trapped within the transparency; but its proper location is real space.' (M. Hentshel, Sigmar Polke: Laterna Magica, exh. cat., Frankfurt, 1994, p. 47).

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