Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
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Property from a Distinguished American Collection
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)


Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
signed 'S. Polke' (on the stretcher)
synthetic resin, lacquer and acrylic on polyester
118 x 88 in. (300 x 223.5 cm.)
Executed in 1987.
Maria Osthoff, Görwihl
Studio d’Arte Cannaviello, Milan
Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, 1990
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2010
"Ausstellungshinweise für den Monat Februar," Du, vol. 773, no. 1, February 2007, p. 85 (illustrated in color).
U. Arnswald, "Sigmar Polke – der Mystagoge der unablässigen Metamorphose," Neue Rundschau, vol. 118, no. 4, April 2007.
N. S., “Höhere Wesen,” Profil, vol. 26, no. 38, 25 June 2007, p. 83 (illustrated in color).
Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Sigmar Polke, October-December 1988.
Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Sammlung Frieder Burda: Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Arnulf Rainer, September-November 1996, p. 160, no. 60, (illustrated in color).
Bonn, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland; Berlin, Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting, June 1997-February 1998, p. 345.
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Sammlung Frieder Burda, October 2004, pp. 220-221, no. 139 (illustrated in color).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda; Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien; Dresden, Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Polke: Eine Retrospektive: Die Sammlungen Frieder Burda, Josef Froehlich, Reiner Speck, February-October 2007, p. 64, no. 39 (illustrated in color).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Die Bilder Tun Was Mit Mir: Einblicke in die Sammlung Frieder Burda, March-June 2010, p. 75 (installation view illustrated in color).
New York, McCaffrey Fine Art, Sigmar Polke, January-February 2011.
Sale room notice
This Lot is Withdrawn.

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

We are grateful to Michael Trier for the cataloging information he has kindly provided.

Formerly in Frieder Burda’s extensive collection of Sigmar Polke’s work, B-Mode is a vast, nearly ten foot-high, semi-transparent painting of multiple layers and shifting appearances, painted in 1987. Centered upon the enlarged, raster-dot image of a printed, black-and-white photograph of a young, half-naked woman gazing flirtatiously towards the viewer while engaging in an act of striptease, the painting is itself a playful tease that establishes a complex and revealing game of looking with the viewer. It is a work that at every level is aimed at provoking, seducing and titillating the viewer’s gaze into an appreciation and an understanding of the fascinating but inherent lie of all imagery and image-making. And in so doing, it is a work that aims to awaken in the viewer a gratitude for the complex, multivalent but also fleeting, momentary and ultimately ambiguous and uncertain, nature of reality itself.

B-Mode is one of a series of towering semi-transparent paintings, all executed on polyester grounds in the mid-to-late 1980s, that mark a particularly rich and creative period in the history of Polke’s always prodigious and varied productivity. Making use of a wide range of often exotic materials, a multitude of painterly spills, smudges and printing errors along with a sequence of contrasting patterns and printed reproductions, these paintings were works that expanded the artist’s ceaseless inquiry into painting’s ability to articulate the rich mystery of reality to its fullest potential. They were pictures in which, as Sean Rainbird has written, Polke demonstrated the validity of painting to a skeptical post-modern audience who had been brought up on the idea that the medium was dead. “Painting,” Rainbird wrote, “far from being a redundant practice in an era of mechanical, electronic and digital communications is shown by Polke to be a resourceful medium equipped to investigate the complexities of contemporary experience” (S. Rainbird, "Seams and Appearances," Sigmar Polke: Join the Dots, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 1995, p. 9).

Many of these paintings of the 1980s were abstract in nature, comprising of paint lacquer and resin that had been poured, splashed, brushed and smeared onto often both sides of their transparent polyester grounds in a way that anticipated Polke’s later experiments with transparent screens in his series of Magic Lantern pictures of the early 1990s. In B-Mode however, Polke has collaged several different techniques and images in a way that harks back to his early raster-dot paintings and fabric paintings (Stoffbilder) of the 1960s. In particular, B-Mode echoes, in its subject matter at least, famous earlier raster dot-pictures of 1966 such as Bunnies, Freundinnen or Japanische Tänzerinnen. In these earlier paintings printed photographic images of erotic female figures such as Playboy Bunnies, girls in bikinis or Japanese dancers had also been depicted in a deliberately enlarged and distorted sequence of raster-dots so as to simultaneously seduce and frustrate the viewer’s eye.

“The viewing experience” of such pictures, as Charles W. Haxthausen once explained in this respect, was one that effectively “reverses the normal viewing experience—the closer one moves toward the painting, the less one sees of the object. Polke’s blown-up image is thus teasingly designed to frustrate the very desire that it arouses—this is most strikingly apparent, for many male viewers at least, in titillating erotic images such as Bunnies or Japanese Tänzerinnen... In this and other dotscreen or raster paintings, Polke, even as he utilizes reproduced images and apes reproduction techniques, is in effect rendering the work unreproducible, because it aims at effects absolutely dependent upon our encounter with the original, unique object in its specific materiality and dimensions as we experience it in time and space” (C. W. Haxthausen, "The Work of Art in the Age of its (Al) Chemical Transmutability: Rethinking Painting and Photography after Polke," in Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat., Bonn, 1997, p. 189).

In one of his extremely rare statements about his own work Polke himself pointed out how this combination of desire and frustrated desire lay at the root of his own experience of the raster-dot printing of imagery as well as of his early realization of the inherent artifice and lie of all imagery. “The fact of my birth would be insignificant for my later creative activity had I not been afflicted from that moment on with poor eyesight,” Polke wrote in 1976. “To be sure, it is not that pronounced: but precisely this nearsightedness opened up for me—very early—access to that world of the dotscreen, which became so significant for my later work. Even today, among my most painful memories is how in the long winter evenings after the currency reform the large family gathered together excitedly over each fresh issue of the Bäckerblume [a magazine of the German baker’s association] and …gaped at what they called 'delicious rolls,' 'seductive croissants,' 'honest to goodness bread,' etc.; but there, where their fingers were pointing, to the accompaniment of ecstatic cries, I saw only many tiny, lifeless, black dots! In despair, I pushed my way closer, only to be yelled at incomprehensively” (S. Polke, "Early Influences, Late Consequences or How did the Monkeys Get into my Work? And Other Icono-Biographical Questions (1976)" in Sigmar Polke. The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat., Bonn, 1997, p. 285).

From the early 1960s onwards, Polke’s paintings methodically set about deconstructing the conventions, codes and language of picture and image making. Invoking the raster-dot technique used in mass-media printing, Polke hoped to expose the lie of the image and to undermine its authority—so dangerous as a medium of politics and propaganda. He also enjoyed drawing attention to the fascinating mechanics of representation. Returning once again to this theme in the 1980s, Polke began to add other mechanical techniques of reproduction into his repertoire, incorporating distorted Xerox copies, blurred imagery and printing mistakes into his ever-expanding mix of technique and multi-media. These new paintings were, Polke said, works that “deal with the problem of reproduction.” He incorporated spills, blurrings and printing mistakes, he said, because he wanted to push these apparent accidents into “another direction until there is no connection anymore between the subject and its reproduction.” What interested him was what “happens behind the subject. Something independent, so that you are prepared to see the one as a subject and the other as a thing in its own right. But techniques of reproduction also play a role: how far are you willing to go for something new to emerge through fatigue or through deliberate reproduction. To exaggerate is also to reproduce and yet it undoes and denounces the original. If you just enlarge certain things by dots, then these dotscreen pictures are simply a form of organization. Singly, they’re not so interesting: they are an organized system that has to be seen as a whole. And these printing mistakes, these errors that have to be pinpointed or discovered, this is not biding time, its biding events. Why are they worth something, these random occurrences? Why are there no mistakes in reproduction that you can maintain endlessly, ad infinitum? And why do you hope that it won’t work, that somehow a mutation will develop in the reproduction, that something else will come out of it?” (S. Polke, quoted in "Poison is Effective; Painting is Not: Bice Curiger in Conversation with Sigmar Polke," December 18, 1984, in Parkett no. 26, 1990, pp. 18-26)

In B-Mode, the overt eroticism of the central figure of the girl is both undermined and rendered as an intriguing painterly abstraction by the enlarging and blurring of the raster-dot pattern to the point where the collective nature of the raster-dot patterning takes on a pictorial life its own. Set against other printed patterns on the surface of the picture, such as the printed fabric-like patterning to the left of the picture and a particularly exotic-looking sequence of stenciled palm-like plants to the right, Polke’s dots develop an abstract lyricism of their own. When seen in close-up, the figurative image of the stripping female loses its erotic appeal to become a fascinatingly sensual abstract field of pure pictorial patterning hovering on the edge of reorganizability.

This intriguing sense of visual stimulation is augmented by the changing effects of light that take place within the work as one looks at it and moves around it. Because the painting is rendered upon a transparent polyester ground, for example, the work is not only see-through, allowing its own structure—in the form of the wooden struts and stretchers that support the canvas—to become a visible part of the picture’s composition. It also, with its layers of semi-transparent resin and patterns of printed and smudged form, creates a complex web of ambiguity. And this ambiguity is further enhanced by being wholly dependent upon the nature of the light that falls upon the work. A change in the light and space into which this picture is positioned, has a dramatic effect upon the nature and readability of the imagery in the painting itself. As Polke himself once pointed out, the purpose of this multiple layering of imagery and light and effect is to illuminate the impermanence and mutability of all phenomena. "What takes a hold in layering’, he said, ‘is the knowledge of layers that allows you to see: in other words a pipe is not a pipe. The point is to see that, to understand that a picture is basically only what keeps your head moving with what is already in it. When does art ever put anything new in your head? What artist ever does that?” (S. Polke, quoted in "Poison is Effective; Painting is Not," op. cit., pp. 18-26)

It is in this way that Polke makes of his painting a game of looking that involves the active physical presence of the viewer in front of his work. And for him, his paintings were as alive as the viewer who contemplates them. Painting and photography is, after all the product of chemical processes—processes that, ultimately are ongoing even after the imagery of the work is completed. Similarly, paintings are also only a product of the specific light and spatial effects that illuminate its surface. For Polke, therefore all paintings, not merely his own paintings were not just something fluid and constantly changing, flowing and evolving, they were also alive.

A pervasive sense of flux and fluidity were, of course essential components of Polke’s pictorial aesthetic and this is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the large transparent paintings Polke made in the 1980s like B-Mode. Overtly complex, constantly changing in appearance and propagating a bizarre mix of figurative, abstract and chance-driven imagery drawn from all areas of image-making, these works articulate a holistic vision of reality that, as time passes, becomes ever more appropriate and recognizable in our image-saturated culture. But, as Kathy Halbreich has pointed out, Polke “wasn’t interested in representing the great contaminated wash of what we see; he knew that was a fool’s delusional pursuit. He wanted to demonstrate how the unconscious, in combination with all other forms of knowledge, casts its shadow on how we imagine. By being aware of the fictive nature of the order we impose, by embracing ambiguity and letting go of certainty, we free ourselves of the need for—and the comfort of —a single authoritarian vision. We zisk the vulnerability and alertness that accompanies a fully sentient life. This was Polke’s bequest” (K. Halbreich, "Alibis: An Introduction," Sigmar Polke: Alibis exh. cat. MoMA, New York, 2014, p. 92).

It was also in this regard that Polke saw his paintings as being animate and interactive partners with their audience. As he explained, not wholly insincerely, to Bice Curiger when she asked him why he constantly wanted everything to be seen to be changing in his work all the time, he said: “Because everything’s in flux. You have to look fast. You have to be real quick when you look at my pictures. You have to watch them, take them to bed with you, never let them out of your sight. Caress them, kiss and pray, do anything, you can kick them, beat the daylights out of them. Every picture wants some kind of treatment, no matter what. A picture doesn’t become a picture until others do their part. You have to engage yourself with pictures that change if you want to flow with them. Otherwise you’re out of it. The picture will fall off the wall. If a picture isn’t loved, it’ll go and get love. It always ends up where it has to be: it just grabs its victims. Pictures have a life of their own" (S. Polke, quoted in "Poison is Effective; Painting is Not," op. cit., pp. 18-26).

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