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

Frau mit Butterbrot

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
Frau mit Butterbrot
signed and dated 'Polke 64' (on the reverse)
casein, household lacquer and oil on canvas
63 x 55 in. (160 x 140 cm.)
Painted in 1964.
Hans-Joachim Gross, Stuttgart
Private collection, Germany
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1985
D. Thistlewood, ed., Sigmar Polke: Back to Postmodernity, Liverpool, 1996, p. 50.
Kunsthalle Tübingen; Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum Eindhoven, Sigmar Polke: Bilder, Tücher, Objekte: Werkauswahl 1962-1971, February-July 1976, p. 34, no. 21 (illustrated).
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

We are grateful to Michael Trier from the Estate of Sigmar Polke for the information he has kindly provided.

The mischievous charm of Sigmar Polke’s seminal Frau mit Butterbrot (Lady with Butter Bread) ravishes the viewer with its signature blend of irreverence and wit—a tour-de-force that perfectly encapsulates the artist’s savagely ironic yet utterly charismatic style. An early iconic masterpiece, Frau mit Butterbrot dates to 1964, the year of Polke’s first Rasterbilder, the ubiquitous raster-dot paintings that mimicked the halftone printing process of newspapers and magazines. A rare, formative work, it demonstrates the scathing critique of mass media culture that Polke and his fellow “Capitalist Realist” painters, Gerhard Richter, Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg proposed in their radical exhibits of the early 1960s. Its biting criticism of bourgeois norms and the meticulous, time-consuming nature of its large-scale execution make Frau mit Butterbrot one of the most significant paintings of Polke’s early career. Both charming vixen and proper hausfrau, Polke’s cunning, perfectly-coiffed subject is the wholesome Bavarian counterpart to Lichtenstein’s comic-book heroines and Warhol’s tragic starlets. Created at a critical, early juncture, Frau mit Butterbrot slyly demonstrates the significant themes that would sustain the artist for the duration of his career.

The fresh-faced beauty that Polke cleverly depicts here is the epitome of desire. A simple piece of buttered bread is delicately poised upon her slender fingertips, as she pauses—mid-bite—with her shining eyes locked upon the viewer. The arch of her eyebrows, the twinkle in her eye, and the smile of her open mouth convey unadulterated joy. The viewer imagines the bite that follows—the quick, crisp snap of the teeth and the look of satisfaction that would inevitably follow that first, delicious taste. Polke’s depiction allows the viewer direct access to the scene. The closely-cropped, zoomed-in angle and the large-scale vastness of her presence wholly envelops the viewer, making escape impossible. And indeed, every ounce of the image elicits desire. With her wicked grin and ravishing beauty, Frau mit Butterbrot is the sister, friend and partner-in-crime to Polke’s seminal portrayals of women—Girlfriends, 1965 (Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart), Bunnies, 1966 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.) and Japanese Dancers, 1966—whose beguiling look-but-don’t-touch aesthetic is veiled under a scrim of intoxicating dots.

The large-scale Frau mit Butterbrot is based on newspaper and magazine advertisements that Polke collected while living in Düsseldorf during the early 1960s. In these remarkable early paintings, Polke meticulously hand-copied the tiny raster-dots of the printed newspaper photograph onto canvas using a magnifying glass and small stencil, carefully transferring each section by hand. Creating an exhilarating scrim of patterned dots that both defines the central image and destabilizes it, Polke’s dots differ from Roy Lichtenstein’s perfectly regimented ben-day dots, as Polke deliberately alters their placement, toying with their size, configuration of patterning. In Frau mit Butterbrot, the effect is uncanny—seen from a distance, the painting adheres to the faithful reproduction of the original image, but upon closer inspection, the image resists focus; the harder one looks, the more difficult a close reading becomes. In his characteristically devilish manner, Polke illuminates the fact that, beneath the surface, things are not always as they seem: “I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about. The way that motifs change from recognizable to unrecognizable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open. ...Nothing is so effective as raster pictures when it comes to destroying the naive acceptance of technical pictures as depicting ‘things from the world on a flat surface’” (S. Polke, quoted in M. Hentschel, “Solve et Coagula: On Sigmar Polke’s Work,” in H. Belting, Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat., Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublick Deutschland, Bonn, 1997, p. 54).

In Frau mit Butterbrot, Polke lavishly re-creates an advertisement image. The lovely, fresh-faced model, with her perky hair-do and brilliant smile, is the veritable epitome of post-war consumer luxury, right down to her crisp white collar and expertly manicured nails. Her mirthful grin conveys not only the deliciousness of freshly-buttered bread, but also the freedom, peace and luxury of free-market capitalism. Her ebullience is infectious, her shining eyes and raised eyebrows offer the viewer a direct challenge—don’t you want some too?

For Polke, simple images of bread were closely tied to the small, black-and-white illustrations of baked bread that he found in the pamphlets distributed by his local bakers’ guild while living in post-war Germany. These humble publications—called the BÄCKERBLUME—featured illustrations of freshly-baked bread in simple reproductions that elicited powerful emotions in the artist. Having experienced the difficulties of postwar Germany first-hand, these profound illustrations provoked a multitude of conflicting emotions, from simple hunger to sheer joy, as well as a marveling at the intrinsic graphic power of the printed image. He described “Among my most painful memories is that of long winter evenings after the currency reform, our family of four huddled together in joyful anticipation over the most recent issue of BÄCKERBLUME, elbowing each other in the ribs and pointing out what were referred to as “delicious rolls,” “seductive croissants,” “honest to goodness bread,” etc… My picture of the world was profoundly influenced by what I saw in these illustrated works... would be inconceivable without them” (S. Polke, quoted in F. W. Heubach, “Sigmar Polke: Early Influences, Later Consequences,” in H. Belting, ibid., pp. 285-286).

As West Germany prospered under the so-called “economic miracle” of free market capitalism, Polke was quick to capture the trappings of bourgeois life in the wealth of consumer goods that flooded the West German market, which, by contrast, also pointed to their dearth in the former DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). These revolutionary early canvases depicted common objects and ordinary food, from sausages and socks, to shirts, doughnuts and chocolate bars, rendered in larger-than-life canvases and set against a vast, white background. Joseph E. McHugh writes “the Rasterbilder’s representational style is rooted in the experience of living in the conflicting forces that shaped the post-war German experience. ...the rasterbilder images of West Germans eating bread (Frau mit Butterbrot), brushing their teeth (Junge mit Zahnbürste, 1965), selling bread (Berliner, 1965)...offered a new form of modern representational art to the West German viewer that tried to avoid the ideology of both Nazism and Communism...that marked West Germany as different—from its past, from the West and from the East” (J. E. McHugh, “Connecting the Dots: Sigmar Polke’s Rasterbilder in their Sociopolitical Context, in Sigmar Polke: Back to Postmodernity, Tate Liverpool, 1995, pp. 50-51).

In this way, Frau mit Butterbrot speaks to a deeper psychological meaning that lies at the heart of Polke’s most significant work—from the economic miracle of free market capitalism, to the comforts of home and the simple pleasures of buttered toast. It subtly conveys the horrors and deprivation of bread lines and ration cards. It also echoes, however, the sentiment that art—indeed the entire aesthetic experience—is no longer something intellectual, relegated to the sphere of museums and books, but lives in the real world, inhabited by real objects. It belongs to this new realm, where it’s found in the simple pleasures of everyday living—a new dress, a walk in the park or fresh slice of buttered bread.

A familiar, recurring motif that Polke developed during this formative period can be found in the white margin that borders the wide-eyed, smiling frau in Frau mit Butterbrot. The peripheral border that surrounds the central image on two sides is not unlike the simple white border of a Polaroid photograph or an offset newspaper illustration. Similar paintings of this era demonstrate the same pictorial device: Junge mit Zahnbürste (Youth with Toothbrush), 1965, Girlfriends, 1965, Plastik-Wannen (Plastic Tubs), 1964 and Socken (Socks), 1963, for example. Like his reliance on rasterdots, which he faithfully copied off of black-and-white reproductions, Polke continually emphasizes the fact that what we are seeing is a pictorial quotation that originated in magazine and newspaper advertisements. He was keenly aware of contemporary advertising techniques and their commodification of desire. Considered in this light, Pollke’s cunning use of the white margin is altogether radical, light-years ahead of the postmodern appropriation of magazine photographs that artists like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman developed nearly two decades later.

As a formal device, Polke’s pictorial border might also act as a perimeter or protective gate cordoning off the central image. In doing so, it might serve to keep the spellbinding beauty of the lovely frau and her buttered bread deliberately off-limits. Perhaps Polke delighted in the irony implicit in his look-but-don’t-touch depiction. Might this pictorial border also serve as a reminder of the lack of consumer goods and personal liberties to be found on the other side of the literal border between East and West Germany? Subtle allusions to the Berlin Wall are tempting to consider, especially given the relative newness of the wall itself, having gone up on August 13, 1961. The art historian Martin Hentschel elucidates this notion, describing how the white border might symbolize the lack of food and other consumer goods, especially in these early paintings of the sixties. He writes “rather than pointing to the saturated consumerism of the sixties, the motif has much more to do with the still gaping gaps in the basics of everyday life in Germany in the fifties” (M. Hentschel, “Solve et Coagula: On Sigmar Polke’s Work,” in H. Belting, Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat., Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublick Deutschland, Bonn, June-October 1997, p. 50).

In Frau mit Butterbrot, Polke unleashes his characteristic irreverence and ironic wit, laying out the fundamental methods of his style with an ebullience and charm that would sustain him for the duration of his five-decade long career. In this early work, Polke’s straight-forward depiction of a youthful beauty and her buttered bread begs the viewer to look beyond her polished appearance, to question the conditions of her making, in a parody of the fetishistic objects of consumer culture and a subtle yet radical appraisal of a rapidly-changing nation faced with the dawning of a new era and the lingering spectre of its grisly past. Polke’s signature rasterdots and the white margin of empty picture ground deliberately emphasize the artificial construction of the image itself in this charming yet mischievous portrayal. Created at a remarkably early moment in the artist’s career, Frau mit Butterbrot displays the innovation and mastery of Polke’s technique with a biting clarity that makes it one of the most significant paintings of his early career.

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