Ohne Titel, 1993, is a heady cross-pollination of ebullience and irony, a fusion of materials, processes, and images that both display Sigmar Polke’s mastery of technique and the freeing sense of utterly contingent meaning. Against a floral and geometric fabric dating from a 1950s design in muted tans, reds, and greens surrounded by a repeating border, Polke has washed the fabric in thick, fluid interference acrylic, against which he has overlaid a still life in his signature Raster dots. The seemingly disparate techniques – textile, painting, and a hand-painted photomechanical replication – brings together both modernist and postmodern styles; that is to say, Polke, a masterful bricoleur, has seemingly randomly combined mediums and images that open onto a mélange of multivalent meanings. Historical and contemporary, diverse and unified, the resulting mixture is both optically compelling and riveting in its textural abundance of smooth, raised, and liquescent tactility. Combining his practice of Stoffbilder (fabric paintings) with his signature Raster dots, the artist superimposes a still life over background fabric much as he had done thirty years earlier with his first Stoffbilder in1964, The Palm Painting (Das Palmen-Bild). In this early fabric picture Polke paints palm trees – a sardonic commentary on escapist culture of capitalism – over a pattern of repeating swerving striations in red, grey, yellow, and green. In the present work, the raster-dot still life overlaps the signifiers of leisure activity, the decanter and wine glasses and the period-designed fabric, while incursions of paint dissolve any fixed images. Polke creates thematic and technical complexities out of optical and tactile randomness. With a sly wink to domestic period style, consumer capitalism, and art historical visual vocabularies, Ohne Titel shows Polke at his most critically trenchant and artistically acute.
Polke’s signature Raster technique involves the use of a slide projector to enlarge and project an image, often chosen randomly from existing sources. Then by hand, Polke traces or fills in dots not encompassed by the laying down of the stencil. The breaks in pattern, the joining of several dots, and the arbitrary empty spaces in the pattern indicate that Polke has painted many of the dots individually. The mimicking of Raster dots – a simulation of the halftone technique that conveyed the printed origin of an image – was a lifelong preoccupation, stemming from his love of the technical aspects of mechanical reproduction. “The need for me to make raster images comes from one of my own characteristics, namely from my love of the purely technical, of the impersonal…” (S. Polke, “Conversation with Anita Shah,” in Die Dinge sehen wie sie sind: zu Sigmar Polkes malerisches Werk seit 1981, Weimar, 2002, p. 71).
Remarkable in Ohne Titel, however, is the way in which three distinct techniques combine to create a sense of nostalgia even as they efface the past with incomplete imagery. The repetition of motifs in the fabric design (what in German usage is called Rapport, a technical term used by textile manufacturers for this repeating pattern) mirrors the repetition of dots in the treatment of the partial overlaid image. The painted Abstract Expressionist gestural trope fuses fabric and image with its iridescent, mica-based pigment (white titanium dioxide precipitated on thin mica platelets), creating an optical flip between an opalescent color and its color complement (J. Walsh, “Interference Color,” for Golden Artist Colors, 2015). “Interference” color – a pigment that interferes or changes the quality of the image coloration depending on the angle from which it is viewed – was originally used in the automotive industry for high-end finishes. Polke therefore links Ohne Titel with mass production, while he uses swaths of paint to adjoin disparate sections of the work both as an acknowledgment of modernist painting and a challenge to it.
Polke’s parodying of Roy Lichtenstein is significant. Lichtenstein executes clear, crisp images, such as we see in Still Life with Peeled Lemon (1972) clearly demarcating the wine glass even as he partially obscures it with a boldly rendered peeled lemon. There is no ambiguity, no washing out of contour or color as we find in Polke. Lichtenstein stabilizes his images using thick contour lines, definite placement within a compositional grid, saturated hues, and high contrasts in order to foreground his objects. While Polke compresses his image by breaking off its contours and thereby undermining the object’s certainty, allowing paint to liquidate delineation and raster dots to infiltrate form. In doing so, Polke destabilizes and subverts meaning. “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, “Raster Culture: Studio Conversation with Painter Sigmar Polke,” Rheinishce Post, May 10, 1966).
Ohne Titel’s sheer complexity and seeming incongruities reflect the fierce intelligence of an artist critiquing his present and his past. Relentlessly experimental, Polke combines order and disorder rendering visual complexity across a range of mediums – all in the pursuit of “creative freedom: the freedom of doing what one wants to do and what one thinks is right to do…” (ibid.).