Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE GERMAN COLLECTION
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)

Familie II

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
Familie II
signed and dated 'Polke 66' (on the reverse)
emulsion on canvas
39 3/8 x 41 in. (100 x 104 cm.)
Painted in 1966.
Private collection, Germany
Dietmar Werle, Cologne
Acquired from the above by the present owner, circa 1983
Kunsthalle Tübingen; Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum Eindhoven, Sigmar Polke: Bilder, Tücher, Objekte: Werkauswahl 1962-1971, February-July 1976, p. 39, no. 42 (illustrated).
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Sandra Sublett
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Lot Essay

Familie 2 presents a consummate statement of Sigmar Polke's achievement. Registering with singular creative force the artist's oscillating vision of reality, Polke worked only a few inches from its surface, constructing a design that inheres in--as it dissolves--the photographic ground. Patiently and painstakingly constructing a scrim of dots by hand, Polke simulates a mechanistic process, achieving an intoxicating system of patterning that reverberates between the figurative and the abstract. Polke worked across mediums with irreverence, ebullience and ironic wit, displaying his mastery of technique in scathing, boisterous critiques of politics and mass culture. In the wake of World War II, a pair of "like-minded painters" as Gerhard Richter described his relationship with Polke at that time, together staged action/exhibitions and wrote anti-historical/anti-ideological texts for their joint exhibition in 1966. They operated under the moniker, "Capital Realists," a reference both to the East German Social Realist art movement and Pop Art in America, while critiquing West German consumerism in a burst of youthful anarchy (G. Richter, "Notes," in Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007, New York, 2009, p. 23, and note 1, p. 537).

Such subversive energy mixed with a seemingly unsystematic compulsion to grapple with and cross-pollinate mediums constitutes Polke's extraordinary artistic practice. With biting clarity and creative imagination, Polke worked with photographic images and graphic techniques throughout a five-decade long career characterized by innovation and manic energy. His reasons for exploiting raster dots were ever changing: either it was his love of the technical aspects of mechanical reproduction or his wish to depict the world as he had seen it as a result of nearsightedness in his youth, a disability that had rendered the visible world opaque, as if covered by a scrim of the raster dots that would occupy Polke to the end of his life. Imitating the technical rastering process used by the media to reproduce images of the everyday, Polke delighted in exploring multiple treatments of the process. As John Baldassari averred, "[Polke] is a font of Ideas. Any one move can provide a career for a lesser artist" (J. Baldassari, in R. Storr, On the Edge: Contemporary Art from the Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Collection, New York, p. 104).

Familie 2, 1965, is an especially trenchant example of this technique. Both disguise and process, raster dots--the digital simulation of the halftone technique that conveyed the printed origin of an image--are put to subversive use. Rather than revealing by creating tonal areas that would ensure legibility, Polke uses his dots to encrypt the image. Unsparing in his parodying of Roy Lichtenstein's more unified design of clear and crisp images, Polke's use of Lichtenstein's formal device is hauntingly murky. In contrast to Lichtenstein--who uses thick contour lines and high contrast in value, color and saturation to foreground shapes as in advertisements and comics--Polke compresses his image and substitutes for contour lines strongly demarcated shifts in value. Polke's dots blur the image through his meshing of irregular dots, conjoined or absent, an artistic practice that emphasizes the artificial construction of the image. Polke's erudite, but skeptical approach, opens art toward the mechanical processes of the every-day, but in a way that erases effect, evacuates sentimentality and tentatively acknowledges memory. The contrast to Richter's Photo Picture of a similar family grouping could not be starker. While both use a black and white photograph as their source, Richter's blurring, unlike Polke's more opaque rendering, leaves traces of a nostalgic aura, a lived past in the present representation. Polke, on the contrary, dilutes the past with sardonic wit, obscuring features to the point of unrecognizability, closing down rather probing meaning. And while questions remain unanswered in both, Polke's image actively engenders effacement through its opposite, overexposure--too much light, static interference, pictorial resistance--marking a past that perhaps was forcibly removed and thus, rendered null. The beguiling brilliance and intelligence of such a work as Familie 2 is clear from Polke's contextual handling--the manner in which the utter ordinariness and anonymity of the image serves the artist's aesthetic ends.

Polke's focus on process draws from conceptual oppositions, which he realizes through dynamic material contrasts. Enlarging his found photograph by means of an opaque projector (epidiascope), the stark value contrasts foreground the conceptual oppositions inhering in Familie 2--randomness and anonymity placed in tension with the specific and personal; an idealized or false normalcy set against inherently artificial, mechanical realization. As a student, Polke studied the art of stained glass. With his rich sense of irony and aesthetic flair in the use of codes and symbols, Polke's Familie 2 could be seen to resonate with religious iconography. The "joins" between dots mime the molded leaden "cames," which were cut into myriad flanges to frame stained glass--as if Polke created perforated stencil out of lead to replicate Ben-Day dots that would shroud as they transmute the photographic image into a venerated, yet hallucinatory religious icon. The disposition of figures in Polke's image (and in Richter's enlarged private snapshot, Terese Andreszka, 1964) replicate images of the Holy Family throughout history. Bright light seems to radiate from the outstretched arms of the baby's form, eliciting resonances with the Christ Child centered between 'Mary' and 'Joseph.' Yet, the group's pose also summons to mind conventional snapshots in common visual currency. By transferring non-art poses from the everyday into the realm of fine art, Polke further entangles the network of raster meshing, creating visual associative complexity out of the photographic record of common situations and familial groupings, conflating the idealized vision with lived experience. Bypassing the neo-expressionism of artists like Anselm Kiefer and George Baselitz, Polke created an art practice that reflected the technological advances of its time. Polke geared this practice toward a society that benefited from the prosperity brought about by the Wirtschaftwunder, West Germany's "Economic Miracle," a platform of market-oriented capitalism. Cultural images associated with the nuclear family, leisure and industry proliferated. The source photograph for Familie 2 might be an example of such agitprop, which Polke's dots contravene, turning facial features and large fields of light and dark into opaque geometries of diamond shapes and spatial angularities. As physical characteristics are masked or obliterated by the pattern of dots, the image shifts in and out of focus, and thus work to neutralize the image.

Family portraits have provided subject matter for artists from time immemorial. The Holy Family was the template for its vast and varied thematic treatment over the entire course of Western art history. The emergence of Modernism in the mid-nineteenth century carried the tradition surrounding the treatments of the theme with it, such as one finds in the celebrated work by Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family. Degas was in his twenties studying in Florence, where his aunt's family lived. At the same youthful age as both Polke and Richter, Degas portrayed his aunt, Laure, with her family-her husband, the Baron Bellelli, and her two daughters. Schematically, the disposition of the figures parallels Polke and Richter's overall tripartite framework. Striking is its similar value contrasts of bright white against black to Polke's shadings. Degas' painting as well as the art historical tradition on which it is based, in particular, Anthony van Dyke's family portraitures, transmits society's idealization of the family unit, with its veneration of its hierarchy, in particular the woman's moral leadership as well its primary role as progenitor. In contrast, Polke's treatment in Familie 2 comments on society's false apotheosis. Indeed, the Dadaist artist John Heartfield's famous Zwangslieferantin von Menschenmaterial Nur Mut! Der Staat braucht Arbeitslose und Soldaten! (Forced supplier of human ammunition--Take courage! The State needs Unemployed Workers and Soldiers!), 1930, captures the bleakest nadir of women's roles in German society by the 1960s. The abuse of authority underlying Polke's critique of the falsities inhering in his idealized family portrait, Familie 2, is burlesqued with wicked glee, in the crystalline patterns of Raster dots that efface all detail and expression. "Polke uses abstraction--a kind of abstract if mechanical process--to punch holes in the representation of social reality--the dots are so many holes undermining the image they form--suggesting that [the image] is a mass deception" (D. Kuspit, "Conflicting and Conflicted Identities: The Confusion of Self and Society; The Eighth Decade," A Critical History of 20th Century Art, Artnet Magazine, 2005). The found photograph, upon which Polke masterfully worked, is a false projection, an elevation of the idealized family within a corrupt capitalist economic network. A double projection, the photograph, effaced by the artist's hand-painted scrim, is evidence of a society built on the simulacra of outmoded social structures of which the photograph's mystification of reality, at twice remove, bears the trace.

The rastering process involves laying fields of dots on a lined plate with the goal of imparting gradations of tone to the printed image. When viewing photographic reproductions, the divided colors meld into a single field, creating a unified image. Polke's (and Lichtenstein's) manipulations inverted the technique, so that the process by which the tonalities were achieved became in some sense the subject of the work. By reversing the relationship between form and content, between tonality and the means by which tonality is transferred to subject matter, Polke makes processes evident and dilutes and destabilizes meaning. By mediating the relationship between viewer and image, Polke comments, too, on the political, social and cultural milieu of West Germany in the 1960s. Polke's raster pictures critique the technological innovations that powered mass media and through which socialization was achieved in West Germany (J. E. McHugh, "Connecting the Dots: Sigmar Polke's Rasterbilder in the Sociopolitical Context," in Sigmar Polke: Back to Postmodernity, Liverpool, 1996, p. 43). Polke and his fellow artists Richter, Konrad Lueg and Manfred Küttner state this clearly in a letter inviting members of the New German Newsreel to attend what they titled their "art demonstration": "[Our work] recognizes the modern mass media as an authentic cultural phenomenon and turns their attributes, formulations and content, through artifice, into art" (Joint letter written by Polke, Richter, et al., ibid., p. 43).

Familie 2 is of signal importance within an oeuvre characterized by imaginative dissonances and incongruous juxtapositions extracted from daily life and produced by means of techniques borrowed and repurposed from every artistic medium. A remarkable essay central to Polke's achievement as well as to the art historical context that produced it, Familie 2 combines order and disorder, fact and fiction, masterly control over disordered proliferations of surface incident. Familie 2's visual complexity matches the range of associations inhering in the work; it is a technical as well as a conceptual masterpiece, an achievement that calls into question the visual certainties of the everyday as it queries the meaning of representation.

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