SIGMAR POLKE (1941-2010)
SIGMAR POLKE (1941-2010)
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Property from the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Collection
SIGMAR POLKE (1941-2010)

Ohne Titel

SIGMAR POLKE (1941-2010)
Ohne Titel
signed and dated 'S. Polke 1971' (lower right)
spray enamel, acrylic, metallic paint and watercolor on nine joined sheets of paper, mounted on canvas
93 1⁄2 x 69 3⁄4 in. (237.5 x 177.2 cm.)
Executed in 1971.
Jan-Erik von Löwenadler, Stockholm
Acquired from the above by the late owners, 1985
Further details
We are grateful to Michael Trier for the cataloging information he has kindly provided.

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Ana Maria Celis
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Lot Essay

Defying categorization into one specific artistic movement, Sigmar Polke was a singular presence in the world of contemporary art. Knowingly problematizing the Western love affair with abstraction that ran rampant in the mid-twentieth century, his canvases question Modernism and its protagonists while also reinvigorating the figurative composition in a manner at odds with American Pop. Ohne Titel, realized in the wake of the late 1960s and the dramatic social changes happening the world over, is a dynamic example of the artist’s use of multiple styles and media to challenge the status quo. “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 skepticism that contemplates… its own endlessly ramifying contradictions” (P. Schjeldahl, “The Daemon and Sigmar Polk”, in Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1990, p. 17). Never content to ride a trend or adhere to a specific style, Polke continuously questioned the place of images and their power.

Rendered with a deluge of different painterly applications on nine joined sheets of paper that were then mounted on canvas, Ohne Titel is a scene of visual turmoil that begs the audience to unlock its different layers with extended viewing. The majority of the work’s surface is covered in red spray enamel that the artist applied over various intersecting linear pieces that were then removed. This process left ghost images of a spiderweb of crisscrossing lines that emanate a bloody haze from their crisp, clean edges. Further overspray is visible in the form of green and blue areas that seem to have been masked out with sheets of paper, their right angle corners cutting into the spackle of paint and revealing the tan, faded paper underneath. Amid this chaotic abstraction, Polke has placed myriad figurative elements that push their way through the storm. An interior scene, a theatre, a man smoking a cigarette, and a strangely bulbous building are all among the included images. On the lower half of the composition, the simply sketched outline of a man in suit and hat gestures with his outstretched hands. The left points at a green disc covered in spots of white and black. Above all of this, Polke has painted a larger image in deft strokes of opaque white. A chimpanzee, dressed in a shirt and belted pants, holds a bottle in one hand and rests his elbow on the bellows of a large format camera. Grinning, he seems to be turning the lens back on the viewer as they struggle to take in this barrage of visual information.

Like his contemporary Gerhard Richter, Polke’s oeuvre twisted and changed over the years as the artist reinterpreted and reworked the way his ideas came to fruition. Coherent series sometimes make an appearance due to visual and compositional similarities, but the exact nature of Polke’s working style is a testament to the artist’s tireless probing of the postwar aesthetic in Germany and abroad. Art historian Sean Rainbird succinctly explains the artist's practice as "elusive as he is himself. [Polke] has constructed a persona that plays with the concepts of inspiration and originality. Within this cult of creativity, he is an elfin presence, a shrouded mystic, a magician projecting illusions" (S. Rainbird in Sigmar Polke: Join the Dots, exh. cat., Liverpool, Tate Gallery, 1995, p. 9).

Born in East Germany, Polke escaped to the West as a child. In 1959 he moved to Düsseldorf where he eventually enrolled at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and met Richter and the artist Konrad Leug. The three began staging actions and installations under the title Capitalist Realism in 1963 as a response to American Pop and its conversation about consumerist imagery. Hanging their own work within the display models of a furniture store, they conflated the everyday with the perceived ‘highbrow’ art world. This flattening of social and artistic strata was key to Polke’s early work, and it extended into pieces like Ohne Titel as he purposefully clashed recognizable images pulled from various sources with full-fledged abstraction.

Key to understanding Polke’s oeuvre is an acceptance of his need to combine and investigate figuration and abstraction at the same time. Neither element is to be viewed separately, but instead both work to bolster the other and create a vibrant, ever-changing composition. Polke “demonstrate[s] that a picture has infinite layers whose variety continually generates new meanings” (B. Curgier, Sigmar Polke: Alles fliesst; Die Photo Copie GmbH, Baden Baden, 2004, pp. 38-39). Referencing the sheer amount of visual information we are subjected to on a daily basis, Polke’s paintings seem ever more prescient in our digital age. Appropriated imagery, mechanical reproduction, and the inimitable artistic gesture all combine within his canvases to establish a new sense of form, energy, and visual language within the time-honored traditions of painting.

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