A work that cannot be experienced on the printed page, Sigmar Polke’s Arcimi Boldi can only truly be understood in the flesh. Reflecting the artist’s near mystical attitude toward painting, approaching the work is like seeing a magical potion being concocted. Seemingly luminous in nature, the mysterious abstract patterns change in the light, producing a sense of flux and an infinitely rich variety of visual phenomena. Working in the manner of a modern-day alchemist, Polke developed a painting approach grounded in material exploration, informed through his early forays into photography of the decade prior.
The present work represents elements such as enigma, uncertainty, flux, simultaneity and of constantly shifting and reforming values; the central features of all Polke’s output since the 1960s. Creating a cool distance from his earlier German Pop aesthetic in the 1970s and early 80s, Polke’s work moves toward the chaotic, departing from traditional painting as he traveled in Afghanistan and Pakistan, documenting his artistic and personal explorations in photography and film. Through his extensive travels and with his exploratory use of psychedelic drugs in the 1970s, Polke delved into the realm of photography and set about founding his pictures on simultaneous and multiple views of reality colliding within the fixed environment of the picture plane. Relishing the chemical nature of the photographic processes, he played with overexposure, blurring and colour change to push the material nature of the medium. He sought out deliberately unstable, interactive and constantly changing materials with which to work; materials such as transparent lacquer and resin, interference and fluorescent colours and a variety of solvents, acids and photographically sensitive chemicals that changed with the effects of light, heat, moisture and other external stimuli upon them. The present work is also informed by his seminal presentation of Negativewert I-III: Alkor, Mizar, Aldebaran at Documenta 7 in 1982, which can be seen as an important precursor to this abstract works. The dazzling surface of the Documenta triptych was the result of an intense engagement with his materials and action of his painting: throwing handfuls of rare colour-changing violet pigment, pouring opalescent dispersion paint and painting to create the pronounced circular formations which are echoed in the composition of Arcimi Boldi.
Alongside his contemporary, Gerhard Richter, Polke sought the complete deconstruction of painting; to strip it back and rebuild what could be conceived as the possibilities in painting, reviving the idea of painting in the post-modern period. In contrast to Richter’s formalist exercises into exuberant colour and disquieting realism, Polke intentionally clashed styles, refuting definitions and formal rules. Polke’s approach to painting in the 1980s is distinctly post-modern in its blend of technical methods, and embrace of chance procedures. The 1980s was a fertile period of processdriven, alchemical experimentation for him. He used unorthodox and idiosyncratic materials, often mixing pigments and chemicals to create unexpected reactions and printing on unconventional materials. Polke’s irreverent use of materials embraced the unexpected, deliberately pushing conventional notions of beauty and the limits of painting. Conflating a wealth of gestural abstract explorations, Polke’s experiments resulted in magical compositions such as Arcimi Boldi.
Combining a sequence of semi-representational splashes, strokes and swirls of paint, poured and dripped in alternate directions both up and down the canvas, Arcimi Boldi is a rich example of Sigmar Polke’s fully abstract paintings from the mid-1980s. Paint and resin mix and flow across the canvas, creating hypnotic blends of texture, colour and forms. Multiple gestures fill the picture plane: broad passages of white suggest paint swept across with a dry brush, while liquescent passages and drips of colour suggest freely poured paint. Always an alchemist at heart, Polke embraces the chaos in the collisions and hallucinogenic clashes of form and colour. Yet not all elements are totally left to chance, as he delicately paints the bubble-like formations that unite the composition. Through an endlessly surprising series of painterly gestures, Polke revels in the fluidity and versatility of paint; the veins of colour dripping impossibly upwards reveal Polke’s deft manipulation of this medium, rotating his canvas to encourage the drips of paint spread across the composition. Never one to present a single view or conventional image where many will do, the ambiguity inherent in the composition is mirrored in the title, which is perhaps a nod to the 16th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, best known for his imaginative portraits, rendering human features from images of fruits, vegetables and flowers.
In Arcimi Boldi, Polke has built up his composition through layers of conflicting abstract reality on the surface of the picture. A myriad detail of colour and pattern deliberately undermines perceptual depth, each vying with the other for the eye’s attention. Impasto collides with thin washes of colour, handpainted elements collide with drips and abstract passages of poured paint. On top of these passages, Polke scrawls swirls and curlicues of violet, red and mint. These features are then obscured by a wash of white paint, which appears to melt into subtle lilac and lavender. A deliberate arch of paint is purposely marked out in deep green at the centre of the composition, leaving residual drips of paint. Using paint and lacquer poured, scrubbed, splashed and applied in a descriptive manner, as well as allowing materials to drip across the composition according to the laws of gravity and chance, the painting is a composite of painterly styles, different materials and techniques. ‘The processes are what interests me,’ Polke has said of such works. ‘The picture is not really necessary. The unforeseeable is what turns out to be interesting’ (S. Polke, quoted in Sigmar Polke Farbproben-Materiealversuche- Probierbilder aus den Jahren 1973-86, exh. cat., Galerie Klein, Bad Münstereifel, 1999, unpaged). The element of chance is a powerful pictorial expression of Polke’s own view of the world as a constantly shifting universe of disparate imagery and visual stimuli, existing beyond the powers of human perception or pictorial categorisation. It is a view of the whole of ‘reality’ as something that exists in a fascinating but ultimately unfathomable state of flux. Nothing, Polke believed, could, or ever should, be seen to be independent from anything else in his work if it was to provide a real approximation of the true nature of reality.