'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...lots of dots vibrating, resonating, blurring, re-emerging, thoughts of radio signals, radio pictures and television come to mind.' (S. Polke, quoted in D. Hismanns, 'Kultur des Rasters. Ateliergespräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke,' Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966).
Painted in 1965 at the height of Sigmar Polke's involvement with the ironic version of Pop Art entitled 'Capitalist Realism' that he founded with fellow artists Gerhard Richter, Mannfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg, Das Paar (The Couple) is a rare and highly important colour example of his first 'Rasterbilder' (Raster-dot paintings).
Through a complex abstract maze of large colourful dots hand-painted on a white canvas background, the vague and also apparently banal image of a society couple in full evening dress posing for the camera can be perceived. Their image hovers on the borderlines of recognition in a strange pictorial realm that lies halfway between abstraction and figuration in a way that seems to reference the inadequacies of all reproductive media, and, like some poor quality colour television image struggling to transmit, seems ultimately to vibrate with its own playful energy.
Polke's Rasterbilder are works that deliberately exploited the rasterdot technique of printing as a way of subverting and bringing into question the apparent truth, validity and purpose of the media images that his paintings of the early 1960s often appropriated. In the 1960s the rastering process was the sole printing process available to the commercial media for the reproduction of a clear photographic image. Using screens of tiny dots, lines and other patterns were layered onto a lined plate in order to give the printed image an appearance of tone.
When viewed, these tones combined in the mind's eye to form a cohesive and recognisable image. In the newspapers and magazines of the time, the abstract dotted surface of a printed image still remained visible to the naked eye, but despite the evident artifice of this medium, the mechanically-produced image, like the periodicals themselves, still carried with it an authority that it portrayed a true and accurate picture of the world. It was this authority that Polkes Rasterbilder consciously challenged. In them the artist deliberately and painstakingly manipulated the raster technique painting by hand, magnifying the dots and distorting them, as in Das Paar to the point of absurdity, so as to create a clear and playful ambiguity that disrupts the cohesiveness of the image and opened it up to new ways of being understood. Anticipating much of his later work with the layering of multiple imagery, in his Rasterbilder Polke threw the process by which we see and interpret the world wide open by exposing and revealing the essentially artificial and abstract methods by which all imagery is understood.
This deliberate upsetting of the clarity and stability of the image was in part a political act. Unlike Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein-the two American Pop artists whose similar adoption and manipulation of media imagery at this time was perhaps closest to that of the self-named 'Capitalist Realists' Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter - the German artists' decision to paint from photography embodied an element of protest. Where Warhol and Lichtenstein celebrated the mass media, elevating its imagery and means of reproduction to the status and realm of 'high art', Polke and Richter's work was always more of a critique or an expos. The essential reason for this was one of the cultural differences that existed between America and West Germany at this time. After twelve years of Nazi rule and the subsequent partition of the country into East and West, Germany had found itself at the heart of the ideological battle of the Cold War. As a result, and in direct contrast to those living in 'the Land of the Free', many young West Germans had an innate distrust of the media as an authoritarian tool of propaganda that was borne out by long experience. Indeed, after years of Nazi and Socialist propaganda, Germans had a very different attitude towards media imagery to the Americans, effectively associating all representational imagery and figurative art with authoritative rule. For Polke, the Rasterbilder offered a new form of representation that avoided such narrow authoritarian ideology by operating in an area of clear ambiguity and freedom.
Polke's special fascination with dots also lay in their relationship to modern science's view of the world as an essentially chaotic and abstract realm made up entirely of particles and waves. Enigma, uncertainty, a sense of flux, simultaneity and of values constantly shifting and reforming themselves - these, as in the world of radio waves and of quantum physics, are the central features of Polkes art and reflect the artist's unique and sometimes mystical take on the impenetrable and fascinating mysteries of the image-laden surface of experience that we call 'reality'. Using the artificial surface of his own pictures as an arena within which to reevaluate this and as a multi-layered meeting place of such shifting imagery, Polke seeks to open up and awaken a similar sense of this fascinating perceptual mystery in the viewer.
In Das Paar, as in another colourful rasterbild from this period, Die Freundinnen, Polke has taken the raster technique to the point where it completely subordinates the subject matter of the painting to the manner and style of its execution. In both cases he has taken a media photograph, here complete with a caption that is hitherto rendered illegible, and by magnifying the raster technique of its reproduction, accentuated the artifice of the raster medium to the point where its mechanics not only cease to function, but also enter into the playful and intuitive realm of the painters' art. Seemingly excited by the abstract patterning of dots that the raster image plays out before his eyes, Polke here, as he was later to do with the mathematics in his Lösungen (Answers), makes deliberately false connections between the building blocks of the picture, fusing them together into strange irrational patterns. Like a spanner in the works of the machine, these are mad patterns that appear to playfully assert the artist's need form freedom, individuality and independence at the same time that they subvert the banal authoritarian media imagery on which they are based.
'I love all dots, ...with many dots I am married. I want all dots to be happy. The dots are my brothers. I am also a dot. Earlier we used to play together, today everybody goes their own way. We only meet now and again at family gatherings and ask: how are you?'
(S. Polke, quoted in Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., Hannover 1966, p. 35).