Sigmar Polke’s Untitled shows the artist’s emblematic use of the Benday dot which he first began using in his Rasterbilder series from the 1960s. Polke appropriated the aesthetic of the mechanized printing process (which had been limited to the use of screens with simple dots and lines) by producing an image by hand painting the dots. Polke maintains that his affinity with this aesthetic goes back to his childhood. “The fact of my birth would have had little effect on my later work, had I not been born with a vision impairment. While it is not a severe handicap, my shortsightedness gave me access – and that at a very early age – to that raster world that was to become so important in my later work” (S. Polke, Early Influences, Later Consequences in Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1997, p.285). His take on painting as a ‘machine-like’ practice blurs the definition of representation and its semiotic value, forcing us to reflect on the meaning of imitation. In Untitled Polke paints all his dots by hand, in doing so he transforms the structure of the image, leaving the viewer wandering between fantasy and reality. His art works almost conjure a dreamlike state of the printing machine trying to remember its previously printed image.
In Untitled Polke extracted an image of consumption – a person shopping in a department store—from mass media. The image functions as a found readymade that allows Polke to transform this banal, commercially produced image into a work of art questioning the nature of high art in a way similar to his American contemporaries Warhol and Lichtenstein. “I like the technical character of the raster images,” Polke once maintained, “as well as their cliché quality. This quality makes me think of multiplication and reproduction, which is also related to imitation. I like the impersonal, neutral and manufactured quality of these images. The raster, to me, is a system, a principle, a method, structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same. I also like that enlarging pictures makes them blurry and sets the dots in motion; I like the motifs switch between being recognizable and being unrecognizable, the ambiguity of the situation, the fact that it stays open …. In that perspective I think that the raster I am using does show a specific view, that it is a general situation and interpretation: the structure of our time, the structure of a social order, of a culture. Standardized, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialized.” (S. Polke, quoted in Hülsmanns, “Kultur des Rasters.” Translation by Magnus Schaefer. Kathrin Rottmann, ‘Polke in Context: A Chronology’ in Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014. p. 53).
The combination of different painting techniques, used in Untitled, alludes to the instability of our perceptual value. His heterogenous transformation of a mechanical produced image into a hand painted artwork leaves the viewer wondering over the criticality and approachability of the image, leaving one ambiguous not only about the image source but also of the methods of creation and associated values. As a student of Joseph Beuys, Polke and Gerhard Richter were inclined to regard painting as dead, but each in their own way have transformed the way we look at painting today.