'It is clear that a progressive scientific approach like my own can no longer concern itself with boorish causalities or self-satisfied reasons but must focus instead upon relationships, since without relationships, even causality itself might just as well pack up and leave, and every reason would be without consequence. Thus in my scientific work I concentrated upon the exploration of those relationships which genuinely bind things together, beyond their tendentious subdivision into 'causes' and 'effects'. This whole system of classifying things as causes and effects must come to an end! We must create a world of free and equal phenomena, a world in which things are finally allowed to form relationships once again, relationships liberated from the bonds of servile textbook causality and narrow-minded, finger-pointing consecution... (for) only in these relationships is it possible to find the true meaning and the true order of things' (S. Polke, quoted in 'Early Influences, Later Consequences...' reproduced in Sigmar Polke -The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat., Munich, 1997, pp. 289-290).
Executed with a variety of opaque and semi-transparent lacquers on both sides of a semi-transparent polyester cloth ground that allows both the recto and the verso of the picture to be viewed simultaneously as one complex and dramatic image, this work is one of a fascinatingly varied series of transparent landscapes that Polke made in the late 1980s. Comprising a variety of media applied by the artist in numerous ways so as to create an endlessly surprising series of very painterly but ultimately indefinable images, it is one of a series of highly inventive, semi-figurative semi-abstract transparent paintings that were to culminate in 1993 in Polke's large scale multi-form installation, the Laterna Magica.
Using paint and lacquer poured, scrubbed, splashed and applied in a descriptive manner as well as allowed to drip across the canvas 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).
With its radiating horizon lines and simply delineated hills and sunsets hinting at the traditional structure of a landscape painting, Untitled is a work that fuses the worlds of abstraction and figuration into a playful pictorial object that demonstrably exposes and undermines the conventions of perception and pictorial representation. A parody of the landscape tradition in painting, it 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. In accordance with this view, this painting is transparent perpetually changing according to the position in which it is set and the effects of the always shifting light conditions passing through it.
Seeming to offer a universal view of life through a picture visible from all sides at once, Untitled's fusion of imagery suggests itself as a mental picture of the universe as a constantly changing series of images oscillating in a perpetual and fascinating state of transition. In his embracing of such change, Polke's art, like the ancient hermetic 'work' of the alchemists, invokes the idea of transmutation as a universal constant. To reinforce this central element in his art Polke often deliberately employed ancient, obscure and unstable materials known to transform over time. In 1986, for example, in a work entitled Athanor named after the crucible of the alchemists, Polke painted the walls of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale with a series of pigments highly susceptible to humidity and damp. In the moist climate of the Venetian lagoons, the result was an extremely fragile and volatile painted fresco that changed colour and texture almost by the hour. In a similar way, the transparent backgrounds of his transparency paintings and the later Magic Lantern pictures that grew out of such works extended these aims into the realm of the picture frame because they too respond to and are transformed by the slightest change in light conditions.
Like the moving shadows on the wall of a shadow-puppet play, the imagery that Polke has painted in both opaque and semi-transparent lacquers on the synthetic transparent fabric in this work is itself constantly transformed as the light changes. Through the picture's transparency, its front and back become confused, giving rise to a new sense of the dimension of space and of the viewer's position within it. 'I wanted to make a mirror with lacquer where you stand in front of it and see what is behind you', Polke once explained in this respect. 'Then you paint what you see behind you onto the picture that is in front of you. The next thing is this: while you're seeing what's behind you, you start to have thoughts about what is in front of you that you can't see. Because the illusion is already there and perfect' (S. Polke, quoted in Sigmar Polke: Laterna Magica , exh. cat., Frankfurt am Main, 1994, p. 44).