Fascinatingly complex and multifariously composite, Untitled, 1992, is testament to an oeuvre defined by reckless experimentation and heedless contamination. Over the course of a practice spanning five decades, Sigmar Polke has rebelliously destabilised the boundaries between media, promiscuously appropriated manifold sources, and melded together every binary opposition imaginable, becoming the true contrarian of post-War and contemporary art. The present work, encompassing abstraction and figuration, premeditation and chance, is an intriguing synthesis of the styles and methods which Polke evolved over the course of his practice.
In a hallmark gesture familiar from the artist’s innovative exploration of paint and pigment, Polke lets a pallid blue colour spill over a white ground, allowing gravity and accident to trace a spidery network of rivulets. Modifying the unpredictable crystalline patterns which result, the artist tints a random selection of the cells, causing a faint blush to spread over the left side of the support. Mixing images with the same fluid ease as liquids, the artist incorporates disparate visual sources, rendering each in a markedly different technique. Leftmost, in a delicately-brushed caricature, deprived of context and narrative, a haughty woman lectures an irate man garbed in a fish costume. In its cartoonish subject matter and linear style, this illustration recalls Polke’s earlier work Spiderman, 1971-4, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in which the eponymous character, stripped of all referents, clambers over an abstract ground. On the right of Untitled, the artist appropriates a woodcut of a puppeteer, instantly recognisable from its expressionistic marks, which appear as if carved between bold black outlines. Throughout his practice, Polke ceaselessly lifted motifs from prints, transforming and distorting the woodcuts, lithographs and etchings he stumbled upon into a richly ambiguous personal iconography. The present work reveals the artist’s method for transferring these images into his work: on the coat of the puppeteer, the areas to become highlights are outlined, while the black around them is yet to be filled in, creating a daintily linear image.
In the centre of Untitled, the artist employs his most iconic technique, diligently hand-painting a lattice of raster dots. As the marks swirl and each dot loses its individuality, a barely coherent image of a Napoleonic soldier emerges, made recognisable by his bicorne headdress and the contrast of light and dark upon his tunic. In the constant shift of the raster dots, coming together and dissolving, the artist found the perfect visual equivalent for his oscillating vision of reality: ‘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 Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2015, p. 74). In Untitled, with the irrational patterning of its abstract ground, the hypnotic flux of its raster dots, with the mesmeric mosaic of its images, Polke creates a work whose layers become unfixed and fluid, constantly multiplying into an alluring infinity of new meanings.