Never one to be constrained by a particular artistic movement or style, Sigmar Polke’s brilliance lies in his ability to make biting social commentary through a variety of means. Known for his raster paintings as well as his politically-charged student actions with artists like Gerhard Richter, the painter’s artistic courage was forged in the fires of postwar Germany and the clash of cultures brought on by the division of that country. Stadtbild II is a luminous example of Polke’s thinly-veiled assessment of capitalism, a divided Germany, and American Modernism while still remaining a vibrant, enchanting painting that proves itself expertly-imbued sly nuance. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “To learn more and more about [Polke], it has sometimes seemed to me, is to know less and less. His art is like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland rabbit hole, entrance to a realm of spiraling perplexities” (P. Schjeldahl, "The Daemon and Sigmar Polke", Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1990-1991, p. 17). Ever the one for reinvention and reinterpretation, Polke’s career is marked by myriad styles, all of which are beholden to his critical eye. Turning his gaze at the art world and socio-economic issues in equal measure, the artist has inspired countless generations to cast off complacency in favor of action.
To learn more and more about [Polke], it has sometimes seemed to me, is to know less and less. His art is like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland rabbit hole, entrance to a realm of spiraling perplexities”
Rendered upon an expansive black ground, a dazzling cityscape unfolds in a riot of color and energetic strokes. Painted five years before Polke would encounter the New York City skyline for himself, this imaginative take on the iconic buildings and lights successfully captures the pulsing atmosphere of the “city that never sleeps”. Faint outlines of white create discernible rectangular forms that Polke then dots with squared-off brushstrokes to indicate the faint sheen of window glass. Using a bold yellow that brings to mind the undulation of soundwaves, the artist creates amalgam spires of some of New York’s skyscrapers; starbursts of red could be anything from fireworks to the brake lights of a checker cab. Across the lower edge of the composition, a river of fluid white and red strokes bring to mind city lights glinting off of the East River or the smear of headlights on the FDR. Above this all, a diagonal grid of yellow is spattered by a kaleidoscope of colored dots that seem to slyly recall Polke’s own raster paintings. Beyond that, the drizzly, freeform nature of the bold yellow and blue lines throughout could also be a reference to Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and his tendency to pour and spill paint along the canvas in kinetic ribbons. However, artist Peter Doig has commented on this idea, noting that Polke “seemed to use an abstract element to create real atmosphere and mood in his paintings, not just to make comments on abstract paintings. It didn’t seem to be about the language of painting that existed…If imagery was added on top or behind, it always felt totally meant” (P. Doig, quoted in M. Godfrey, “Interview with Peter Doig”, Tate Etc., September 23, 2014). It is here that Polke’s dexterity with the medium becomes apparent as he both creates a visual treatise on the state of painting in the mid-1960s while also producing a vibrant, thrilling composition in its own right.
When I came to the West I saw many, many things for the first time. But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn’t really heaven”
Painted in 1968, Stadtbild II was realized at a turning point for West Germany. Several years earlier, Polke and classmates Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuettner staged an action/exhibition that they referred to as “Capitalist Realism”. Slated as a deliberate marriage of Pop Art and the government-endorsed “Socialist Realism” of East Germany, the young artists sought to problematize the places where socialist dogma met the unbridled capitalism of the United States. By the time Stadtbild II was painted, the economy of West Germany was in jeopardy and the formation of the German Student Movement was underway. Part of the post-1945 generation, Polke saw the rise of promise in a new Germany that was increasingly failing to live up to expectations. Things were far from perfect in the United States at that time, but the public image of the country was one of audacious prosperity. Working with the American ideals of mass proliferation of images, the artist and his comrades turned a cynical German eye toward what was going on outside of Germany. Ruminating on visiting America some years later, Polke commented, “When I came to the West I saw many, many things for the first time. But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn’t really heaven” (S. Polke, quoted in M. Gayford, “A Weird Intelligence”, Modern Painters, Winter 2003, p. 78). Looking for answers beyond the country’s borders, Polke conjures a vibrant homage to the promise of New York while also critiquing the selling of a false reality.
Polke’s knack for using multiple styles for different ideas is showcased in the artist’s adoption of particular painterly techniques in Stadtbild II. As John Caudwell noted, “Polke adopted the most stylized of decorative conventions to more complex and serious uses. In the City Paintings…one is aware at first of the hackneyed, hyperactive image of a city at night, illuminated both by strips of electric lights along the contours of the buildings and by fireworks. After a moment, however, one realizes that an alternative reading of the paintings is possible: they are also a strikingly accurate rendering of the way a streetscape actually appears as if one has consumed hallucinogenic drugs” (J. Caudwell, Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1990, p. 10). Further readings can be made as well. The conversation between young German artists and the cultural hotbed of New York is certainly one of them. Peering from the Rhineland at the glistening advertisements and sparkling towers, Polke was well aware of the strides being made by artists caught up in the energy of that place. It is therefore probable that the choice of New York City as his subject was meant as a connecting line between himself and Manhattan.
At the core of Polke’s works are an insistence on investigation and curiosity. Peter Schjeldahl noted that, “Polke’s true significance lies beyond the antic surfaces of his art, in a philosophical attitude that has haunted recent artistic theory and practice like a ghost in a machine. It is an attitude of bottomless scepticism that contemplates… its own endlessly ramifying contradictions” (P. Schjeldahl, op. cit.). Self-reflexive in his practice, Polke consistently examined traditional media and forms from within. Painting about painting while simultaneously taking the breadth of Western capitalism to task, what at first might appear as simple canvases are often drenched in conceptual layers. Born in the midst of World War II, Polke was very aware of the damaging effects of blind trust in societal structures. Never mistaking shiny surfaces and glittering prosperity as a signal for complacency, he continued to subvert and question the world around him throughout his astounding career.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).