‘I started thinking about colour and its treatment… how, for example, Hinduism explains and uses colour or how Australians use colour… Seeing how colours are made, out of what kind of earth, I couldn’t resist them, but instead of earthy colours, I came up with purple. An entirely abstract affair that you only get in parts of the world, which surprised me’ (S. Polke, quoted in ‘Poison is Effective; Painting Is Not: Bice Curiger In Conversation with Sigmar Polke’, in Parkett, no. 26, 1990).
‘The processes are what interest me. 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).
Sigmar Polke’s Untitled (Triptych) presents a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of virtuosic painterly abstraction, filtered through the opulent gold and iridescent purple spectrum that came to mark his palette. Hypnotically poured and dripped across three canvases, Polke’s combination of acrylic, interference colour and dispersion unfolds in intricate webs of rivulets and tendrils, capturing the kinetic effects of flux and collision central to his oeuvre. Textures emerge and dissolve across the picture planes, at times redolent of fabric or stone, at others appearing to hover before the viewer like traces of intangible matter. Executed in 2001, the work draws upon the principles of chance and uncertainty that had formed the backbone to Polke’s practice since the 1960s. As an artist whose work was informed by travels to far-flung corners of the globe and pioneering alchemical experimentation, the dawn of the new millennium saw Polke engage with themes relating to the contingency of culture and science. From political histories to the molecular intricacies of the cosmos, Polke’s works of the late 1990s and early 2000s continued to seek new visions of reality, exemplified in the 2003 exhibition Sigmar Polke: History of Everything, held at the Dallas Museum of Art and Tate Modern, London. The present work, with its phantasmagoric distribution of colour, texture and form, seems to hint at an alternative realm in which substances mutate and transform. As Maika Pollack has suggested in her review of the current Polke retrospective, first held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and now installed at Tate Modern, London, ‘In Polke’s chemistry … we see the Internet with its endless depths of images welling up. What’s more, his paintings are not cynical; they re-enchant the world of images and the possibilities of picture-making’ (M. Pollack, ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010 at the Museum of Modern Art’, in New York Observer, 16 April 2014).
Working in the manner of a modern-day alchemist, Polke took his cue from Werner Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’. This fundamental law of particle physics, first established in the 1920s, asserts that ‘the more precisely that the position of an entity is determined, the less precisely its momentum is known’. The principle posits the understanding that reality is neither a fixed nor stable phenomenon, but one that reveals itself only in a series of shifting contexts. Polke came to appreciate Heisenberg’s principle through his exploratory use of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s and 1970s, and was one of the first artists to seriously engage with its parameters, forging multiple views of reality that collide within the fixed environment of the picture plane. In addition, Polke sought out deliberately unstable, interactive and constantly changing materials with which to work; materials such as transparent lacquer and resin, interference colours and a variety of solvents, acids and photographically sensitive chemicals that changed with the effects of light, heat, moisture and other external stimuli upon them. Indeed, Polke’s luminous purple tones have their lineage in his seminal presentation of Negativewert I-III: Alkor, Mizar, Aldebaran at Documenta 7 in 1982, which fused a rare colour-changing violet pigment with opalescent dispersion paint. Speaking of his fascination with the colour purple, Polke has explained how ‘I started thinking about colour and its treatment … how, for example, Hinduism explains and uses colour or how Australians use colour … Seeing how colours are made, out of what kind of earth, I couldn’t resist them, but instead of earthy colours, I came up with purple. An entirely abstract affair that you only get in parts of the world, which surprised me’ (S. Polke, quoted in ‘Poison is Effective; Painting Is Not: Bice Curiger In Conversation with Sigmar Polke’, in Parkett, no. 26, 1990).
Alongside his contemporary Gerhard Richter, Polke sought the complete deconstruction of painting; to strip it back and unearth new channels for its development in the post-modern era. In contrast to Richter’s formalist displays of exuberant colour and disquieting realism, Polke intentionally clashed styles, refuting definitions and formal rules. Like so much of his deliberately eclectic work, the present triptych speaks of an unknown and perhaps unknowable world of chance-generated form, chemical interaction, hidden structure and mystery as well as of multiple viewpoints, constant change and of the infinitely rich variety of visual phenomena. Such elements – enigma, uncertainty, a sense of flux, simultaneity and of values constantly shifting and reforming themselves – were the central features of all Polke’s painting since the 1960s. They reflect the artist’s unique and sometimes mystical take on the impenetrable and fascinating mysteries of the image-laden surface of experience that we have come to call ‘reality’. As Martin Hentschel has noted, ‘[In Polke’s work] paint acts like a living, transformable material, the alchemy of the paint is at the same time the mimesis of living nature’ (M. Hentschel, ‘Solve et Coagula,’ in Sigmar Polke : The Three Ties of Painting, exh. cat., Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Hamburg, 1997, p. 75). Using the artificial surface of his own pictures as a magical arena within which to re-evaluate this notion, Polke created a multilayered meeting place for constantly shifting imagery. ‘The processes are what interest me’, he explains. ‘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).