‘The king of the giants…the little rascal, is Polke’ (J. Beuys, quoted in R. Block (Ed.), Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., Galerie René Block, Berlin, 1966, unpaged).
Created more than two decades after Sigmar Polke’s studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and the year following Joseph Beuy’s death, Untitled, 1987, intimately captures the artist’s close yet complex and ambivalent relationship to the enigma and legacy of Joseph Beuys. Hovering ethereally between abstraction and figuration, this work extends the half-way state that had already distinguished Polke’s earlier raster dot-paintings, but takes on a distinctly multivalent, many-layered and obscure form that can only be unlocked by the associative power of the unconscious - confronting the viewer with the projection of a hallucination or dream whose implicit narrative is ephemeral just as it is mysterious. Ever the alchemist, contrarian, prankster and independent pioneer, Polke brilliantly combines lacquer with gouache and acrylic washes to create an entrancing and atmospheric field of colour from which the figure of Beuys emerges from the realm of the dead - shrouded by veils of deep lavender, golden ochre, blue, cinnabar and bright white but clearly distinguishable by his signature felt hat. A definitive example of Polke’s pioneering alchemical experiments of the 1980s, Untitled brilliantly demonstrates the rebellious, inventive and eclectic painterly practice that the artist developed since his formative years and can be considered both intimate homage and critical comment on the authority and orthodoxy of the infamous Fluxus artist.
Devoid of compositional focus and yet rich with iconographic ambivalence, the work conjures the image of Beuys through hidden references such as the large brimmed hat or a shirt collar resembling Beuys’ 1966 Infiltration Homogen for Piano performance. Polke thereby reflects on the charisma and influence of Beuys’ force within his formative years at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he studied from 1961 to 1966 and where Beuys was one of the most revered professors. While the exuberance, dynamism, use of irony and parody, and legitimization of intermedia art practices brought about by Fluxus played a vital role in the development of Polke’s practice, Polke rejected Beuys’ dogma and prohibition of painting and instead chose to study under the abstract painters Gerhard Höhme and K.O. Goetz. Taking up the forbidden practice of painting in collboration with fellow student Gerhard Richter under the auspices of Capitalist Realism, Polke critically engaged with the very convention of the medium itself. Untitled brilliantly exemplifies Polke’s enduring resistance to and often mocking exploitation of all forms of convention, manifested here brilliantly in his enduring insistence on the deconstructive potentials of painting within an artistic milieu had declared it redundant. While the relationship between Beuys and Polke was hence ambiguous, it was characterized by deep respect. Indeed Beuys, when asked to write a short statement for Polke’s first solo exhibition at the Galerie Rene Block in 1966, stated: ‘The king of the giants…the little rascal, is Polke’ (J. Beuys, quoted in R. Block (Ed.), Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., Galerie René Block, Berlin, 1966, unpaged).