Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more VISIONARIES: WORKS FROM THE EMILY AND JERRY SPIEGEL COLLECTION
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)

Transparent #12

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
Transparent #12
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'S.P. 88' (lower right, recto and verso)
acrylic, pigment and artificial resin on polyester fabric
47 1/4 x 51 1/8 in. (120 x 129.8 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1989
New York, Mary Boone and Michael Werner, Sigmar Polke, April 1989, n.p. (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated on the inside cover).
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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.

“I wanted to make a mirror with lacquer where you stand in front of it and see what is behind you. Then you paint what you see behind you onto the picture that is in front of you. The next thing is this: while you’re seeing what’s behind you, you start to have thoughts about what is in front of you that you can’t see. Because the illusion is already there and perfect.” Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke’s radical experimentation with rare and unusual materials ran the gamut from quotidian to the unusual. Precious metals, meteorite dust, moisture-sensitive paint, geodesic rocks, jade, azurite, and even the humble potato, have all provided endless inspiration for the artist throughout his career. In Transparent #12, Polke uses amber-colored resin, powdered pigment and acrylic upon a diaphanous sheet of delicate silk to create a mesmerizing painting that emanates a translucent, honey-colored aura. Created in 1988, this is an early example of Polke’s Transparency paintings, in which thin sheets of gossamer-like silk are soaked in resin and stretched within a window-like frame, allowing light to penetrate their taut, glowing surfaces. Since Polke has painted both sides of the silk, the imagery and possible meanings endlessly multiply, becoming a sort of free-floating, subconscious array that unleashes the complex inner-workings of his encyclopedic mind. In Transparent #12, a mythical, far-flung landscape blends with the swirling, hypnotic musings of Polke’s brush to create a dreamlike scene, in which the interplay of light and shadow make for an intimate, magical experience.

The innovation that Polke unleashes in Transparent #12 had a natural precursor in his work for the 1986 Venice Biennale, in which he created an ingenious series of paintings whose pigment changed with the moisture in the air. What might begin as blue in the early hours ultimately turned red by day’s end upon prolonged exposure to the particularly damp environment of the Venetian lagoons. These radical paintings interacted with the viewer’s environment in an utterly new and inventive way. In the years that followed, Polke continued to elaborate upon the transformative nature of the Venice paintings, as he began to incorporate aspects of light as it played across the surface of thin sheets of fabric. Having already experimented with printed fabric, Polke was familiar with the effects of its varying degree of opacity and translucence. In 1988 he created his first series of transparent pictures, using super-fine canvas and silk coated with resin.

Transparent #12 is a quintessential example of the Transparency series, in which the beautiful interplay of light as it passes through and across the painting’s surface is accentuated by Polke’s chosen materials. His brush creates a tableau in which a fantastic, storybook landscape is overlaid with swirling spirals and bizarre, ray-like emanations. Towering trees preside over the bridges of an ancient temple while a meandering stream recedes into mountains beyond. The dreamlike aura that Polke creates is heightened by the amber-colored hue of the resin-soaked silk, which emanates from the painting with a delicate, honey-colored translucence, while the ghosted vestige of Polke’s hand seeps through from the painting’s reverse, making a cohesive reading virtually impossible. Subtle changes of light and shadow provide endless new associations. As the viewer inspects the painting from different angles, seeing both sides simultaneously, a single gestalt remains tantalizingly out of grasp.

Polke’s scene evokes the myriad sources that no doubt inspired its creation, such as Japanese Edo Period landscapes, the etchings of Albrecht Dürer, children’s storybooks, the surrealist landscapes of Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí and the brooding Gothic melancholy of El Greco’s View of Toledo. Since Polke has painted both sides of the silk, the imagery and possible meanings unravel ad infinitum, each more interesting than the next, in a subconscious unraveling that echoes Polke’s experiments with psychedelic drugs. The incongruity of the landscape is heightened by the series of diagonal lines that extend from the edges of the painting’s lower corner toward its center, recalling the “vanishing point” employed by Renaissance artists to demonstrate perspectival distance. Rather than use the vanishing point as a tool in the depiction of his landscape, however, Polke allows the diagonal lines to intersect the landscape itself. Yet the wavering quality of the artist’s line directly contradicts the mathematical rigor of Renaissance artists. In this way, Polke seems to interrogate the nature of art-making, questioning the man-made systems of measurement and throwing aside the building blocks upon which Western art history is formed.

The precursor for Polke’s Transparency paintings might reside in Marcel Duchamp’s paintings on glass, most notably The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923, in which the shattered panes of glass intersect the artist’s meticulous rendering. Likewise, Francis Picabia’s series of Transparency paintings that he painted between 1928 and 1932 are remarkably similar in their use of overlapping imagery. Like Transparent #12, the strange and evocative imagery of Picabia’s Transparencies are layered one upon the next, in a palimpsest-like arrangement without regard for narrative. Indeed, Polke’s transparencies provide a constantly shifting world where all manner of imagery intersects at random, where the transparent nature of the material prevents the viewer from a full and complete understanding of what’s been depicted. Polke creates a changeable, constantly-shifting paradigm, where it’s impossible to place a foothold on familiar terra firma, not unlike the true nature of reality itself, where the world exists in a constant state of flux.

Polke’s Transparency paintings were exhibited in April of 1989 in New York at Mary Boone’s West Broadway gallery, where the present work was included in the critically acclaimed show. Critics were astonished by Polke’s creations, with one writing, “The golden tones of these works...recall the vellum of illuminated manuscripts, the suspended fluids of slide specimens and something that has been formed entirely organically—lifted perhaps from a beehive” (R. Smith, “Review/Art: Minerals and Randomness in Sigmar Polke Canvases,” New York Times, April 7, 1989, p. C22). Smith, continued, “They also create a sense of expanded eye power, as if one has suddenly acquired X-ray vision. Everything that has gone into the making of each surface remains fully revealed in the final product. The translucent two-sidedness holds no secrets, hides no underpainting and abides no hierarchy. What is up front on one side is invariably in the background on the other...Nonchalant as they seem, these paintings pull together many aspects of Mr. Polke’s previous work with a lightness and diversity of touch that seem new to his that literally illuminates the inner workings and ineluctable optical mysteries of painting...” (R. Smith, ibid., p. C22).

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