A beautifully patterned and chromatically oscillating floral still life, Sigmar Polke’s Kalla (Arum Lily/Calla) belongs to a small series of works on paper exploring the theme of calla lilies in the artist’s trademark ‘raster-dots’. Executed between 1969 and 1970, this work presents Polke’s full mastery of the raster-dot technique he pioneered in 1963 in his ‘Capitalist Realist’ years. The mid-to late 1960s would give rise to some of Polke’s most influential raster-dot paintings, and the raster lilies series that this work belongs to is a rare example of both his experimentation with the raster technique on paper and his brilliant tackling of the subject matter of flowers. A splendid bricolage of disparate materials and techniques that coalesce into chromatic splendor, this work presents us with the white, starkly abstracted silhouettes of three slender calla lilies that emerge from a humming chorus of iridescent yellow and violet dots. Kalla (Arum Lily/Calla) is a stunning mercurial combination of abstraction and representation that evokes the splendor and beauty of nature, whilst simultaneously making the viewer consciously aware of the constructed nature and artifice of its image.
Polke’s lifelong preoccupation with the raster technique began in 1963 whilst a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the same year he initiated, alongside fellow students Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg, the pseudo art movement ‘Capitalism Realism’ as a deliberately ironic response to the state-approved ‘Socialist Realism’ of the East and Pop Art's rootedness in a capitalist consumer society. Given West Germany's conspicuous lauding of its consumerist culture as a ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ (economic miracle) at this time, it is easy to see how, for a generation of artists raised in the East as Polke and Richter were, much of the imagery of the West's mass-media had an aura that appeared artificial and fundamentally divorced from reality. In a similar manner to Richter’s photo-paintings, Polke based much of his work pre-existing photographs and employed his trademark raster dots in this painting to assert the shallow artifice and inherent unreality of all imagery. In the 1960s the rastering process was the sole printing process available to the commercial media for the reproduction of a clear photographic image. In the newspapers of the time, the abstract dotted surface of a printed image appeared visible to the naked eye, but despite the evident artifice of the medium, the mechanically-produced image, like the newspapers themselves, still carried with it an authority that it portrayed a true and accurate picture of the world. It was this authority that Polke’s rasterbilder such as the present work, deliberately challenged.
While the visual motif of blossoming flowers has a venerable lineage in the pantheon of art history, it is a rare subject for Polke. All too aware of the cultural and art historical significance of the floral still-life, Polke pursued banal subject matter and second-hand imagery as a way to manifest his uniquely independent role as an artist. As he explained at the height of his ‘Capitalist Realist’ years, ‘maybe I want to show how dependent we are on existing forms, how unfree our thoughts and actions are and that we are continually resorting to what exists, or that we are in fact obliged to do so consciously or unconsciously’ (S. Polke, quoted in D. Hülsmanns, ‘Kultur des Rasters. Ateliergespräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke,’in Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966). For Polke, the motif of flowers represented the very artistic orthodoxy he was poking fun at. Seen in this light, his irreverent embrace of floral subject matter in Kalla (Arum Lily/Calla) is tinged with brilliant irony and conceptual wit. With its psychedelic sheen and saturated colours, Kalla (Arum Lily/Calla) perfectly demonstrates Polke’s pre-occupation with the theme of the exotic at the time that he had magnificently pursued before in his monumental Dschungel, 1967, or Blumen (Flowers), 1967. As Martin Henschel observes, ‘a whole range of motifs that Polke embraces in his visual world in the sixties seem like collections of finds from reconnaissance missions in petit bourgeois, German living rooms. And it is not by chance that ‘the exotic’ crops up so frequently. This is wholly in in keeping with the conservatism of any emergent affluent society which first finds expression within the individual member’s own four walls’ (M. Hentschel, in Die Drei Luegen der Malerei, exh. cat., Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1997, p. 46). Just as Polke’s hallmark motif of the palm trees can be understood as a sardonic comment on the escapist culture of capitalism, the blossoming calla lilies, native to Southern Africa, here come to represent to the hedonistic desire for imported, exotic beauty.
Through his raster-dots, Polke creates an image that openly displays its own artificiality at the same time as it exposes the banal unreality and artifice of the mass media. Magnifying the mechanically-reproductive technique of the benday dot used in the newspaper printing to the point where collectively they take on an abstract pictorial quality, Polke has painstakingly hand-copied an essentially abstract optical pattern of dots. While Polke was very much aware of Roy Lichtenstein’s ben-day dots, this is no straightforward copy à la American Pop Art. In contrast to Lichtenstein’s clean graphic style, Polke carefully and deliberately magnifies the raster dots to the precise point whereby they begin to disrupt and undermine both the cohesiveness and the integrity of the image - unraveling before us to reveal the inherent state of flux involved in the nature of perception, imagery, and reality. Embracing the aesthetic potential of chance abstraction and technical imperfections, he accentuates the lilies’ slender stems with hand drawn swaths of watercolour, diffuses red spray paint that interrupts the pristine whiteness of the lilies, and allows for deliberately bleeding, smudging and variances in the saturation of paint between the dots to produce delightful moiré effects. With its masterful fusion of materials and processes, ebullient irony, and sly wink to art historical visual vocabularies, Kalla (Arum Lily/Calla) fully captures Sigmar Polke’s mastery of technique and the freeing sense of utterly contingent meaning.