Katastropentheorie III is one of a series of four paintings dedicated to 'Catastrophe Theory' that Sigmar Polke made in 1983. An invocation of a popular mathematical theory connected to chaos theory, these four large enigmatic paintings collectively belong to a series of major works that Polke made throughout the 1980s using a wide range of unorthodox materials to explore and express the essential mystery of imagery and image-making with direct reference to some of the latest concepts of modern science. Ranging often from the hermetic and the pseudo-scientific to a more in-depth engagement with recent theories of thermodynamics or the way in which clouds are formed for example, these paintings, executed in lacquer, ink, gold, silver, or, as here, natural and synthetic resin, are pictorial approximations that attempt to give a holistic view of the world and the different ways in which its imagery is made, perceived and understood.
The inherent artifice of all imagery and its ability to mislead, is something that Polke was deeply aware of and had exploited in his art from his very first manipulated raster-dot paintings of the 1960s onwards. His often many layered, many-styled, multiple-perspective paintings, seemingly depicting many different realities all colliding at once on the picture plane, deliberately play with the overt ambiguity that exists between chaotic patterns and the manufactured image, between abstraction and figuration, between the raster-dot and the perceptible form. In addition, his early appreciation of the implications of Werner Heisenberg's 'uncertainty principle' awoke in him a realisation of the essentially symbiotic relationship that exists between the observer and the thing observed and encouraged him to create an art founded on the idea that the very act of looking at a work of art also, in some fundamental way, changes it. It was this notion that Polke began to explore both practically and scientifically in the early 1980s in such works as Katastrophentheorie and which culminated, for example, at the 1988 Venice Biennale when he painted the walls of the German Pavilion in a water-sensitive paint that would change colour according to the fluctuations of dampness caused by the lagoon.
Painted in 1983 Polke's series of Katastrophentheorie paintings address a similar sense of the permanent flux and inexorable change ever-present within the world but through a pictorial approximation of the implications of 'catastrophe theory'. Rooted in chaos theory and a branch of bifurcation theory, catastrophe theory is a mathematical theory devised by René Thom and made popular in the 1970s that showed how the slightest fluctuation in an apparently stable equilibrium could have vast and 'catastrophic' consequences. In 1983 Salvador Dalí, impressed by his friend Thom's catastrophe theory studies in symmetry, had himself begun a series of works entitled 'Catastrophe-Theory' paintings even dedicating his very last painting, The Swallow's Tail, to one of Thom's famous catastrophe-theory diagrams. As with chaos theory, Thom's catastrophe theory posited a wholly indeterminate view of reality as an unpredictable and interactive landscape of almost infinite possibility. It essentially presented a mathematical vision of reality as a complex interlacing of beautiful ordered chaos very much in accordance with Polke's own.
Here in the third of this series of paintings, all painted in a rich purple-coloured resin that derives from earlier paintings invoking cosmic collisions and Francisco Goya's nightmarish visions of chaos, Polke has created a complex myriad pattern of multi-layered order and chaos. A fusion of splashed and stained marks poured, dripped and splattered over the canvas that both merge with and are articulated by gestural calligraphic swipes of the brush and looping spirals vaguely emulating Thom's catastrophe-theory diagrams, the painting seems to present a rich multi-layered and ultimately mystifying world of action, reaction and interaction.