‘The raster to me, is a system, a principle, a method, structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same. I also like that enlarging the pictures makes them blurry and sets the dots in motion. I like that the dots switch between being recognizable and unrecognizable, the ambiguity of this situation, the fact that it stays open… Lots of dots vibrating, resonating, blurring, re-emerging, thoughts of radio signals, radio pictures and television come to mind. In that perspective I think that the raster I am using does show a specific view, that it is a general situation and interpretation: the structure of our time, the structure of social order, of a culture. Standardized, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialized…’ (S. Polke cited in Dieter Hülsmanns, ‘Kultur des Rasters. Ateliergespräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke,” in Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966.)
Bombarding the senses, Liebespaar explodes into view with a cacophony of dots and splashes which at first appear to be completely abstract but very quickly amalgamate into a dramatic and intense image of two lovers in a deep embrace. Half-closing the eyes, the swirling image miraculously clarifies to become almost photographic. Executed not on canvas, but on a machine printed black polka-dot fabric with white spots which the artist has invaded with erotic splashes of thick, clean white paint adorned with his trademark hand-painted black raster dots to create the image, what results is a confusion of the visual senses as one tries to compute the mixture of white on black and black on white spots. Executed in 1988, the work shows Polke at the top of his game, returning to the themes and techniques which marked his artistic rise in the 1960s, but with a renewed material energy borne of his consistent experimentation with mediums throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Like many of his greatest paintings, the image seems to retain a precarious existence, its raw presentation positing the possibility that it could mutate at any moment between abstraction and figuration. Taking as its subject the timeless theme of a pair of lovers kissing, the painting is a dramatic illusory exercise in the perception and interpretation of imagery.
Tracing the evolution of Liebespaar paintings in Polke’s oeuvre, one can follow the development of his key concerns. Beginning in 1965 with Liebespaar I, in which we see him appropriating an existing fabric support for one of the first times, he stretched a used suit fabric and simply and delicately painted a disappearing image of a couple in an embrace. The same year, he painted Liebespaar II, in which he adopted a more ‘Pop’ approach to an image which seemed more drawn from a pre-existing diagram than the first, more filmic image. It was also one of the first examples of Polke adapting an unconventional artistic medium, industrial enamel paint, possibly in order to emphasise the origins of the image. In the present work, we see all of these elements brought together with his renowned raster technique, in an image which seems to be all the more energetic and erotic, but which also crucially takes on the fascination with abstraction and materials which developed throughout the 1980s, when he was hailed as one of the key Post-Modern painters responsible for making the medium relevant again, through his tireless invention and amalgamation of techniques.
Polke’s Rasterbilder are works that exploit the raster-dot technique of printing as a way as of subverting and bringing into question the apparent truth, validity and purpose of the media images that his paintings appropriate. 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 combine in the mind’s eye to form a cohesive and recognisable 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 first Rasterbilder, made in the 1960s, consciously challenged. In these landmark works, the artist deliberately manipulated the raster technique, magnifying the dots, distorting them, and, as in Liebespaar, inverting the black-and-white dot pattern, in order to create a clear ambiguity that disrupts the cohesiveness of the image and opens it up to new ways of being understood. Forming the prompt to his later use of layered and multiple image-works, Polke’s Rasterbilder throw the process by which we see and interpret the world wide-open by revealing the essentially artificial and abstract methods by which all imagery is understood.
Here, in Liebespaar, over a regularly printed polka-dot fabric stretched to form the ground of the painting, Polke has spilled and allowed an opaque white dispersion paint to drip. This spill has generated a vague, ambiguous and abstract cloud-like form of a type wholly at odds with the regularity of the painting’s ground but of a kind that Polke was increasingly drawn to in the late 1980s and early 1990s for its qualities as an evocative and uninterpretable, non-specific image. Over this spill, he has painted a highly specific representational image - that of a pair of lovers kissing. Painted using a sequence of raster-dots of the kind formerly used in newspaper printing, and here enlarged and distorted by the artist, this emotive image is only readable when standing well back from the painting. In this way the painting becomes a fascinating play of abstract and figurative and meaningful and meaningless form, interacting with one another to create a new and dramatic reality.