Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)


Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
signed 'S. Polke' (lower left); signed 'S Polke' (on the reverse); signed again and dated 'S. Polke 1977/79' (on the overlap)
acrylic and spray enamel on canvas
59 x 51 1/8in. (150 x 130cm.)
Executed in 1977-1979
Galerie Dietmar Werle, Cologne.
Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Nan and Gene Corman, Beverly Hills (acquired from the above in 1985).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. These lots have been imported from outside the EU for sale using a Temporary Import regime. Import VAT is payable (at 5%) on the Hammer price. VAT is also payable (at 20%) on the buyer’s Premium on a VAT inclusive basis. When a buyer of such a lot has registered an EU address but wishes to export the lot or complete the import into another EU country, he must advise Christie's immediately after the auction.
Further details
We are most grateful to Mr. Michael Trier for the information he has kindly provided.

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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘Sigmar Polke. As everyone knew, he was the man of the 1970s’
–Martin Kippenberger

Created in 1977-1979, Mexiko is a scintillating, multi-layered painting that exemplifies the sophisticated psychedelia of Sigmar Polke’s late-1970s work. Towering saguaro cacti emerge in saturated hues of green and purple against a white ground; at the foot of the foremost cactus is a Jeep, revealed, as in a stencil negative, only by its purple shadows. Two people stand to the centre, their figures likewise disclosed by blank silhouettes. Atop this desert scene, like a screen laid over the whole composition, hovers a grid of Mayan glyphs painted in gold. To the upper left is a larger gold icon of a handshake – reminiscent both of the ‘United We Shall Overcome’ logo of the SNCC, the Civil Rights organisation active in America in the 1960s, and the emblem of the SED, the governing socialist party of the German Democratic Republic. An even haze of spattered pink and gold paint completes the canvas. This work’s shimmering complexity is typical of Polke’s approach. Its shifting layers create a multiplicity that frustrates any authoritarian desire for fixed meaning. Polke saw the ‘order’ that we seek to impose on reality as utterly artificial, and reflected this in his works by constantly disrupting the wholeness and stability of pictorial convention. Mexiko’s handshake hints at the political dimension of this aesthetic resistance, which stands in direct opposition to the horrifying eugenicist endpoint of ‘purity’ that Polke’s Germany had witnessed only a few decades previously. In an endless exploratory dialogue with art history and contemporary society, Polke chose to embrace cross-culturalism, ambiguity and play, often with a puckish sense of humour. The 1970s were particularly mind-expanding years; he travelled widely, lived communally, and experimented with hallucinogens in order to broaden his own perceptual parameters. The cacti and Mesoamerican script in Mexiko hint at his fondness for peyote, a psychoactive cactus native to Mexico that has an ancient history of ritual and medicinal use among the indigenous population. A diverse tapestry of superimposed signals and systems, the painting exhibits a tantalising state of flux, inviting us to open our minds and free ourselves from the tyranny of certainty.

Although he saw Afghanistan, Pakistan and many parts of Europe in the seventies, and would later explore many countries throughout Asia, South America and Oceania, Polke seems never to have in fact visited Mexico. Apart from the link to peyote, his artistic interest in the country may have been sparked by Joseph Beuys, who taught Polke at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1960s, and saw in Native American cultures his ideal model for a spiritually whole pre-Modern society attuned to nature. This concept – itself a revival of eighteenth-century Germanic notions of the Americas as natural paradise rediscovered – certainly chimed with the shamanic, utopian aspirations of the 1970s counterculture with which Polke was involved. While he himself became a teacher during this time, and was appointed professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Hamburg in 1977, he remained a radical in both his art and his lifestyle. From 1972 to 1978 he shared the Gaspelhof, a communal space in a small town near Düsseldorf, with his family, friends, lovers and collaborators. ‘He is rarely alone’, noted a gallery review from 1975. ‘Solitary, individualistic existence – so often a requirement for what we think of as artistic achievement – and the closed, nuclear family, are not his thing. Instead, he is constantly surrounded by a changing group of people, lives, travels, even works in the commune … Whoever is with him takes part in his production’ (A. Pohlen, ‘Die Lust am Verulken: Werke von Sigmar Polke in der Galerie Klein, General-Anzeiger, 28 May 1975). Kathrin Rottmann observes that ‘In Polke’s works from the 1970s fluid relationships and hazy boundaries between mediums, classes, and sexes are translated visually’ (K. Rottmann, ‘Polke In Context: A Chronology’, in Sigmar Polke: Alibis, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate Modern, London, 2014, p. 33). This fluidity was reflected in Polke’s extensive experiments with photography, which included ambiguous exposures, artificial colouring and unpredictable chemicals: Mexiko is one of only a small number of major paintings he made during this period. Following Beuys (and reflecting quite the opposite approach to the blinkered, wall-building discourse of today’s political climate), Polke takes an idea of Mexico as the locus for earthly harmony and an exultant, kaleidoscopic dissolution of borders.

The pink and gold paint-drops that dapple the surface of Mexiko lend the work a distinctly cosmic edge. That the gold is the same pigment as the fleet of Mayan symbols introduces a sense of imagery emerging from abstraction, like seeing an astrological map that outlines animals and gods in the chaos of the stars. In the previous decade, Polke had made his famous Rasterbilder, paintings that emulated the dotted patterns that form printed photographs. Although these raster-dots were formally quite different from Mexiko’s atomised drops, they share an important openness and mutability. ‘I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about’, Polke said of the Rasterbilder. ‘The way that motifs change from recognisable to unrecognisable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open … Many dots vibrating, swinging, blurring, reappearing: one could think of radio signals, telegraphic images, television come to mind’ (S. Polke, quoted in D. Hülsmanns, ‘Kulter des Rasters: Ateliergerspräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke’, Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966). Mexiko offers a similarly multi-channelled vision. With no perfect reading or vantage point from which to decode it, there is no way to master the painting. No single narrative takes the high ground, and we must submit to a many-lensed profusion of simultaneous and divergent possibilities.

Polke sometimes went so far as to use the quite literal optics of varying viewpoints in his works. Among the vast array of materials he used (and pointedly misused) throughout his career – which included coffee, brandy, silver nitrate, printed fabrics, uranium, meteor dust, resins, lacquers, and Tyrian purple, a rare dye extracted from a sea snail – in the 1982 Negativwert (Negative Value) series he experimented with a violet dispersion pigment that could flicker into bronze or green from different angles. For a Reichstag commission in 1999 he made lightboxes with a prismatic polymer surface that effected the visual motion of a holographic ‘3D’ postcard. Polke’s fascination with light and translucency can be traced back to his apprenticeship at a stained-glass workshop in 1959-61; in 2009, he would complete five windows at Zurich’s Grossmünster church. Although Mexiko’s painted canvas might seem comparatively prosaic in medium, its compound mirage of pictorial layers and opulent gold-and-violet palette reflect similar visual ideas of filtering and transformation. ‘A light-colour that occurs very rarely in nature, Goethe placed [violet] among the “negative” colours, with blue and green’, notes Jean-François Chevrier. ‘It is also a threshold colour; the last one in the light spectrum, before the ultraviolet rays, which are invisible to the naked eye. In introducing violet into the colour field of the painting, Polke was going to the boundaries of the visible’ (J-F. Chevrier, ‘Between terror and ecstasy’, Tate Etc. 24, Spring 2012). Mexiko’s stencilled exposure of the Jeep in negative also relates to Polke’s abiding interest in the revelatory processes of photography. Translated into paint, the negative creates an uncanny effect, like the ghostly afterimage of something vanished. Polke would go on to use the same stencilling method in his celebrated Hochsitz (Watchtower) paintings (1984-88), which, with their watchtowers’ ominous military outlines hovering against a ground of chintzy fabric, figure a dark spectre in the veils of his country’s postwar consciousness. To see disparate realities at once can sometimes reveal uncomfortable truths. If Mexiko has no such sinister subtext, it nonetheless stands as an ever-timely reminder that there are always different ways of seeing any one thing. Polke blends mysticism with wry wit to conjure a visual adventure of multiple exposures, and a paean to the joys of physical and metaphysical openness.

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