Francis Outred with Sigmar Polke’s Mexiko, 1977-79. Estimate £1,200,000-1,800,000. Offered in the Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 4 October at Christie’s

5 minutes with... Mexiko by Sigmar Polke

According to Francis Outred, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in London, this giant of post-war art remains underrated by the market. Mexiko — offered in London on 4 October — ‘marks a defining moment in his career’

‘This isn’t a painting that gives you easy answers,’ says Francis Outred, Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s in London of Mexiko, a late-1970s work by German artist Sigmar Polke. ‘The image is so rich, with so much going on. Polke doesn’t dictate a way of reading it. It’s a work he challenges us to spend time with and see what secrets we can draw out.’

A multi-layered affair, Mexiko  is dominated by an image of a cactus plant towering over a desert landscape. The stencilled outline of a Jeep can be seen bottom right, while at the top left, two disembodied palms meet in a handshake. A grid of gold-painted Mayan glyphs hovers over the composition like a film.

‘It’s an unusual canvas,’ says the specialist, ‘with its series of elements laid on top of each other. Great experimenter that he was, Polke has also tried out novel ways of applying his paint to canvas here: stencils and spray paint alongside brush.

‘This painting marks a defining moment in Polke’s career,’ Outred explains. After breaking onto the scene as a German Pop artist in the 1960s, he devoted almost all of the 1970s to photography. ‘He spent endless hours in the darkroom, experimenting with numerous techniques [from double exposure to chemical staining] which, one might say, subverted the “truth” of his pictures. Mexiko  marked his return to painting after many years, and heralded what in my view is the boldest period of his career: the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he produced some of his greatest works.’

Polke was born in 1941 in Silesia, a region then in Eastern Germany but now part of Poland. In the 1950s his family moved to Düsseldorf, where he’d study under Joseph Beuys — and alongside Gerhard Richter — at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie.

‘Polke was one of the great postmodern painters, always ready to take risks and to try out different techniques and pigments,’ Outred says. ‘He wasn’t afraid to integrate unconnected elements in a painting either, even if they don’t appear to make sense together.’ The visual complexity of Mexiko  is typical of Polke’s artistic approach, its shifting layers frustrating any desire for fixed meaning.

The handshake at top left, for example, which recalls both the emblem of the SED — the governing socialist party of the German Democratic Republic — and the ‘United We Shall Overcome’ logo of the SNCC, a leading American civil rights organisation of the 1960s, hints at a larger political dimension to this aesthetic resistance. 

The 1970s were particularly mind-expanding years for Polke. He travelled widely, lived communally, and experimented with hallucinogens such as peyote, a psychoactive cactus native to Mexico that has an ancient history of ritual and medicinal use (and was latterly taken up by the hippie movement.)

‘Polke was an alchemist who showed the way for countless painters, such as Peter Doig. He encouraged them to let things come out like a stream of consciousness’ — Francis Outred

Although he saw Afghanistan, Pakistan and many parts of Europe in this decade, 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 his former teacher Joseph Beuys, who saw in Native American cultures an ideal model for a society attuned to nature. 

When Polke himself 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. Mexiko  is one of only a small number of major paintings Polke made during this period. 

The artist died in 2010, aged 69, four years before a huge, 250-work retrospective, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, was held at MoMA in New York; Tate Modern in London; and then Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

Although he has received a wealth of posthumous institutional recognition, Outred notes that the commercial market hasn’t quite kept up. ‘Polke is a giant of post-war art, but he remains underrated by the market. He’s not as valued as some of his contemporaries, though his influence is just as big. 

‘He was an alchemist who showed the way for countless painters, such as Peter Doig. He encouraged them to let things come out like a stream of consciousness; to not feel you have to pigeonhole your influences or worry about the difference between figurative and abstract. Mexiko  is an exceptional example of all that.’