Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)

Gegen die zwei Supermächte—für eine Rote Schweiz [Against the Two Superpowers—For a Red Switzerland]

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
Gegen die zwei Supermächte—für eine Rote Schweiz [Against the Two Superpowers—For a Red Switzerland]
signed and dated 'S Polke 76' (lower right)
spray paint on newspaper mounted on canvas
100 3/8 x 124 5/8 in. (255 x 316.5 cm.)
Executed in 1976.
Dietmar Werle, Cologne
Private collection, Düsseldorf
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2012
P. Lange-Berndt and D. Rübel. eds., Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois! Comrades and Contemporaries, The 1970s, Cologne, 2011, p. 125, fig. 5b (illustrated in color).
London, Tate Modern; New York, Museum of Modern Art; Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, April 2014-July 2015, pp. 32 and 283, fig. C, no. 181 (illustrated in color).
Lugano, Museo d'arte della Svizzera italiana, And now the good news, May-August 2016.
Landesmuseum Zürich, Imagine 68. Das Spektakel der Revolution, September 2018-January 2019.
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Further details
We are grateful to Michael Trier for the information he has kindly provided.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Gegen die zwei Supermächte, für eine Rote Schweiz [Against the Two Superpowers: For a Red Switzerland] is a monumental work dating from one of Sigmar Polke’s most important exploratory periods. Rendered in stencilled spray paint on contemporary newsprint, it bears the slogan of the Kommunistische Partei der Schweiz/Marxisten-Leninisten (KPS/ML): the Swiss branch of the Chinese Communist Party. Executed in Bern in 1976, it belongs to a group of three works based on the same imagery, one of which resides in the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen. Together, these creations may be seen as an extension of Polke’s celebrated ten-part cycle We Petty Bourgeois!, produced during the same year. Specifically, they relate to the second work in the series, Giornico, which deploys the same slogan in reverse. The 1970s was a pivotal time for Polke: amid growing critical acclaim, the artist retreated to a world of countercultural experimentation, defined by communal living, exotic travel and psychedelic exploration. Abandoning painting for much of the decade, he produced dazzling mixed-media reflections of the world around him: witty visual rhapsodies layered with references to current affairs, art history and nature. Having fled from East to West Germany as a child, and been disillusioned by both regimes, the artist rejoiced in seizing loaded political imagery for his own aesthetic agenda. A caustic punchline lingers here: a wry smirk at the comic, somewhat parochial notion of Swiss communism. This work featured in Polke’s major retrospective at Tate Modern, London, in 2015, subsequently traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Active between 1969 and 1987, the KPS/ML was a radical Maoist splinter group of around 80 members. Many had participated in the 1968 student demonstrations, and still had hopes of a violent revolution “against the two superpowers” America and the Soviet Union. On 1 May 1975, “Gegen die zwei Supermächte, für eine Rote Schweiz” was printed onto traditional Swiss May Day lapel ribbons and worn by demonstrators. In contrast to the terror imposed by the radical left in Germany during this time – most notably the Baader-Meinhof Group, whose activities would reach a denouement in the devastating events of October 1977—the threat of a ‘red Switzerland’ seemed almost laughable. “I always thought [Polke] felt ‘What bigger contradiction could there be than between communism and Switzerland?,’” observes Peter Fischli. “The communists there were a very small group, and from the beginning it was clear that they would never have success” (P. Fischli, quoted in M. Godfrey, “Peter Fischli on Sigmar Polke,” Tate Etc., Issue 32, Autumn 2014). In Giornico, Polke juxtaposes the slogan with imagery relating to the Swiss defeat of the Milanese in the Middle Ages: a victory achieved by throwing rocks down the mountains at their assailants. In the present work and its companions, by contrast, he uses pages from the Zürich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, dated 25-26 November 1976. With the party’s slogan blasted like graffiti against adverts for women’s fashion and Black Forest cake, the work ultimately seems to highlight the futility of the KPS/ML in the context of contemporary Swiss capitalist society.

1976 was an important year for Polke. In collaboration with the curator Benjamin Buchloh, he mounted his first major museum exhibition at the Kunsthalle Tübingen, which subsequently travelled to Düsseldorf and Eindhoven. The following year, he took up a professorship at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg: a position he would hold until 1991. “As everyone knew,” Martin Kippenberger reflected, “[Polke] was the man of the 1970s” (M. Kippenberger, quoted in G. Capitain, B: Gespräche mit Martin Kippenberger; Tisch 17, Ostfildern 1994, p. 17). Even in the midst of his ascent to fame, however, the artist himself was largely absent from the scene. In 1972, he had relocated to Gaspelhof in Willich: a communal farm where artists, friends and family drifted in and out of residence for the next six years. It was a place of social experimentation and artistic freedom, and a haven from the anxieties of the Cold War. From there, Polke nurtured links with subcultural groups in Bern, Zürich, Cologne and Düsseldorf, as well as travelling to far-flung locations including Tunisia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He toyed increasingly with consciousness-enhancing drugs, extending his fascination with nature to hallucinogens such as peyote cactus and fly agaric. Such explorations were part and parcel of an alchemist’s mentality, which would become increasingly prominent in the absence of traditional paint and canvas. His layering of media and imagery during this period not only reflected his own enhanced view of the world, but would also pave the way for his adoption of progressively ambitious chemical substances during the 1980s.

The present work takes its place within this context. For Polke, political imagery was just one of innumerable sources that fed his imagination, gathered and archived in the same sweep as advertisements, pornography and scenes from art history. Though his works were undeniably rooted in contemporary culture, Polke rejected the notion that they might be read as statements or judgements on the outside world. The works in the We Petty Bourgeois! cycle, for example, were less critical commentaries than flickering, near-televisual screens that held a mirror up to collective consciousness. After an impoverished childhood spent in both East and West Germany, Polke was as suspicious of left-wing regimes as he was of capitalist society. Throughout his career, he harnessed a range of politically-charged symbols, ranging from bourgeois motifs, swastikas and watchtowers to images of Chairman Mao and members of the Baader-Meinhof Group. His 1976 exhibition saw the unveiling of his installation ‘Kunst Macht Frei’ (‘Art Makes You Free’): a controversial reference to ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Makes You Free’), the slogan that appeared at the entrance to Auschwitz. For Polke, raised in a world of ideological warfare, there was joy to be had in transforming loaded imagery into free-flowing visual currency, as malleable and readily available as the cartoons or fabric samples that populated his work elsewhere. In Gegen die zwei Supermächte, für eine Rote Schweiz, Polke offers an alternative view of communist rhetoric: a fleeting, radical anomaly that failed to make the papers.

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