With its shifting, illusory surface, Sigmar Polke’s Untitled is a mesmerising image of optical and erotic fantasy. Heir to the artist’s iconic 1960s images of lingerie-clad pin-ups – notably Bunnies (1966) and Girlfriends (1965-66) – it combines his signature raster-dot technique with layers of interference pigment, reflecting a spectrum of shimmering metallic tones under varying light conditions. Perpetually unstable, the image morphs and mutates before the viewer’s eyes: surface, texture and colour are held in a permanent state of flux. Created in 2000, it was acquired shortly afterwards by the German tennis player and former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich, who gave it as a wedding present to his wife. The work harks back to Polke’s early Pop-inspired output, which used imagery culled from advertisements and magazines to subtly critique consumerist society in post-war Germany. His use of interference colour, meanwhile, draws upon the alchemical experiments that came to define his practice in the 1980s, extending his enquiries into the volatile nature of all imagery. Made shortly after Polke’s Druckfehler (Printing Mistake) series – which involved enlarging and manipulating printing errors found in newspapers – the work embraces chance as a guiding principle, relishing the abstract fluctuation of the surface under the viewer’s gaze. The atmospheric wash of opalescent paint interacts with the raster-dots to evoke multiple intertwined realities, each as elusive as the last. The work’s alluring subject matter becomes a metaphor from this process: as the eye moves over the picture plane, the girls fade in and out of obscurity, forever just beyond reach.
Polke’s fascination with the raster-dot as a means of representation grew out of an enduring interest in how information is transmitted, both physically and pictorially. Primarily used in reprography – the technique of reproducing visual imagery through monochromatic dots – they also became a subject of interest for Roy Lichtenstein, who mimicked them in his comic strip paintings of the 1960s. Unlike Lichtenstein’s dots, however, which were pristinely and crisply rendered, Polke used a pencil eraser to hand-daub his paint, allowing for a smudging, streaking and diffusion of colour. His dots purposefully varied in scale and tone, calling into question the veracity of the image itself. Though alluding to the perceived authenticity of newspaper printing, they ultimately betray their own artifice. As critic Donald Kuspit explained, the artist used dots as an ‘abstract, if mechanical process – to punch holes in the representation of social reality’, thereby suggesting that the image they form ‘is a mass deception’ (D. Kuspit, quoted in Sigmar Polke: Alibis, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, p. 74). Polke, for his part, explained, ‘I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about. The way that motifs change from recognisable to unrecognisable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open … Many dots vibrating, swinging, blurring, reappearing: one could think of radio signals, telegraphic images, television come to mind’ (S. Polke, quoted in D. Hülsmanns, ‘Kulter des Rasters: Ateliergerspräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke’, Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966).
Polke’s exploration of volatile non-painterly substances during the 1980s took these investigations to a new level. Working in the manner of a modern-day alchemist, the artist took his cue from Werner Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’: the fundamental law of particle physics, first established in the 1920s, which posited that reality was not a fixed phenomenon but rather revealed itself through a series of shifting contexts. Inspired by his own experiments with consciousness-enhancing drugs during the 1960s and 1970s, Polke began to play with a vast array of unusual materials, including silver nitrate, uranium, meteor dust, resins, lacquers and Tyrian purple: a rare dye extracted from a sea snail. In his 1982 Negativwert (Negative Value) series he experimented with a violet dispersion pigment that could flicker into bronze or green from different angles. For a Reichstag commission in 1999 he made lightboxes with a prismatic polymer surface that effected the visual motion of a holographic ‘3D’ postcard. In the present work, his use of interference colour – a commercially available paint incorporating the light reflective mineral mica – continues this trajectory. Its fluid, prismatic surface changes according to the light conditions in which it is set, perhaps recalling Polke’s early training as an apprentice in a stained-glass workshop. Its violet tint also signals the artist’s particular interest in the colour: the last hue in the light spectrum before invisible ultraviolet rays. ‘In introducing violet into the colour field of the painting’, notes Jean-François Chevrier, ‘Polke was going to the boundaries of the visible’ (J-F. Chevrier, ‘Between terror and ecstasy’, Tate Etc. 24, Spring 2012).
Polke’s fascination with the precarity of imagery, however, may ultimately be traced back to his youth. Born in East Germany, the artist was twelve years old when he escaped to West Berlin in 1953. His early upbringing under Communist rule fuelled him with a wry scepticism and politicised detachment, further intensified by the consumer-oriented culture he faced in the West. Upon enrollment into the Dusseldorf Art Academy, he befriended fellow student Gerhard Richter and together with Konrad Fischer-Lueg, they founded ‘Capitalist Realism’: a German vision of Pop Art, and a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the Socialist Realist paintings promoted by the Communist State. Like Lichtenstein and Warhol, Polke and his contemporaries borrowed imagery from the media, advertisements and fashion, simultaneously aping their reproduction mechanisms. While Richter faithfully mimicked black-and-white photographs, Polke’s dots seem more superficially aligned with American Pop. Yet while Warhol and Lichtenstein seemed to glorify products and celebrity culture, Polke took a more cynical stance. He aimed instead to consider questions of ‘dissolution or corruption’ as he tried to make sense of a German society in the process of rebuilding itself (M. Godfrey quoted in A. Sooke, ‘Sigmar Polke: the artist who made Germany go Pop’, The Telegraph, October 7, 2014). Though the artist’s political perspective had become far more globalised by 2000, the legacy of this body of work continued to linger. Still quivering with the Zeitgeist of the 1960s, the present painting seduces and subverts in equal measure, repeatedly demanding that we refocus our gaze.