‘Compare a similar artist’s work to Polke’s and it looks stiff and laboured. His work emanates the stuff of life - it’s music. His work is a font of ideas. Any one move can provide a career for a lesser artist. He is a font; a treasury. The roller coaster ride he takes one on with various stops for high and low culture is unpredictable, brash, and irreverent. Giotto and Matisse have long been in my pantheon. I’m thinking of adding a third - Polke. He makes me glad that I’m an artist’ (J. Baldessari, quoted in Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1990, p. 20).
‘I like the technical character of the raster images, as well as their cliché quality. This quality makes me think of multiplication and reproduction, which is also related to imitation. I like the impersonal, neutral, and manufactured quality of these images. 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…’ (S. Polke, quoted in D. Hülsmanns, ‘Kultur des Rasters. Ateliergespräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke’, in Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966).
Rich and colourful in its playful patterning of abstract form and an organized lattice of black dots, this untitled work from 1994 is a unique and surprisingly joyous raster-dot painting that was created as a gift by Sigmar Polke for his two friends Hans and Minilou Hoetink. Hans Hoetink was the director of Museum Het Mauritshuis in The Hague between 1971 and 1991. A connoisseur of old master paintings, he and his wife Minilou were also greatly interested in contemporary art. Hoetink’s contacts with the Dutch artist Ger Lataster (1920-2012) for example, led to a commission for the latter to decorate the ceiling of the hall of the Mauritshuis in 1987: Lataster’s monumental Icarus Atlanticus. Similarly, the Hoetinks were close to other contemporary artists, including, in Germany, Markus Lüpertz and Sigmar Polke. Hoetink asked Lüpertz to make a sculpture for the courtyard of the Mauritshuis, but this project was never realized. Hoetink visited Polke in his Cologne studio and later Polke and his second wife, the photographer Augustina von Nagell, returned to the Hoetinks’ home for dinner in The Hague. The two couples remained in correspondence until after 1997.
Playing openly on the borderlines between abstraction and figuration, Untitled takes as its subject a fairground scene full of people. Only visible from a distance due to the expanded raster-dot technique Polke has employed in order to render the figurative elements of the painting partially abstract and demonstrably artificial, this scene of people at leisure recalls the earlier themes of some of Polke’s very first raster-dot paintings from the 1960s. In these earlier paintings, such as Strand, Familie Häuserfront or Berliner for example, the artist’s intention had been to emphasize the artifice and propagandistic nature of contemporary West German advertising as well as the banality of the bourgeois aspirations that such advertising appealed to during the years of the so-called Wirtschaftswunder or German Economic Miracle.
In his depiction of a packed fairground in this work, with its queuing crowds, stalls, Ferris wheels and roller-coaster rides, Polke appears to be playfully emulating the atmosphere of such earlier works as well as perhaps, translating the tradition of using such subject-matter in art into a late 20th Century context. For, with its apparently random splashes and drips of deliberately garish and vibrant abstract colour over which the more rationally organised lattice pattern of raster-dots has been laid, Untitled is a work that, in one sense, recalls the playful gaiety and revelling in colour and form that distinguished earlier Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist takes on the similar subjects of popular entertainment for the masses. In particular such memorable paintings as Renoir’s Moulin de gallette or Picasso’s later workings of this subject as well as other of his turn-of-the-century scenes of nocturnal Montmartre gaiety.
Polke’s original aim with his raster-dot paintings of the 1960s had been to demonstrate the manifest artifice of mass-media imagery by literally upsetting its apparent clarity and stability through a manipulation of the raster-dot technique. The rastering process was a commercial printing technique that throughout the 1960s was the only available method for commercial printing to produce a clear image. By magnifying the dots used in this process, expanding their pattern and then manually disrupting it Polke was able to both simulate the authority of the printed image while at the same time to distort it and expose it as also an organised abstract patterning that only generated a cohesive image and held meaning in the mind’s eye of the viewer. This disruptive technique not only provided Polke with an interesting path wherein he could pursue a line in painting that ran in between the supposedly separate realms of abstraction and figuration, but it also allowed him to employ figurative imagery in his work at a time when, in post-war Germany particularly, this was widely considered to be a tainted medium. After years of Nazi and Socialist propaganda West Germans tended to associate representational art with authoritative rule. The rasterbilder like Gerhard Richter’s blurred photographic imagery, provided a new form of modern, representational art that, through its exposure of its own artifice, avoided the stigma of an association with ideology or authority, be it Nazi, Communist, Imperialist or otherwise. This, combined with Polke’s often wry choices of deliberately banal, ordinary, unexceptional and everyday images, had the effect in the 1960s of neutralizing the very same aspects of society and commercial culture that an artist like Andy Warhol was busy celebrating in America.
In a rare statement on his rasterbilder Polke wrote of his enduring fascination with his manipulation of the raster-technique saying: ‘I like the technical character of the raster images, as well as their cliché quality. This quality makes me think of multiplication and reproduction, which is also related to imitation. I like the impersonal, neutral, and manufactured quality of these images. 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…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, quoted in D. Hülsmanns, ‘Kultur des Rasters. Ateliergespräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke’, in Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966).
This essentially fluid, unfixed and, perpetually, changing nature of the image is a quality that Polke bestowed upon most of his creations, and it is also the reason why, throughout his career, he continued to use the raster technique in his work. Painted in 1994, this untitled work was created at a time when Polke was greatly preoccupied with the creation of his Laterna Magica paintings. These, along with a large number of other paintings that were made, not on an opaque canvas or industrially-manufactured fabric ground, but on a translucent synthetic material, so that they became semi-transparent pictures that allowed both the front and back of the image to be seen simultaneously. These were paintings that were both susceptible to and also visually altered by the changing light conditions falling upon them. In this context, Untitled is a comparatively rare work, having been executed on a conventionally primed white canvas. Over this traditional ground Polke has carefully poured, spilled and dripped a variety of different colours whose chance-created patterns provide the work with an active and fluid, perpetually changing sense of structure. Over this has been hand-painted the raster-dot lattice of dots that delineates the fairground scene. The scale of these dots is such that it is only from far that a cohesive image of the scene they depict can be seen. From a normal viewing distance of a few steps away, the picture suggests itself, rather like that of an untuned television set, as a random, chaotic and unstable pattern of dots and colours all inter-colliding without apparent purpose or meaning. In this way Polke is able to suggest in this work that the relationship between imagery and meaning is always, like beauty itself, only to be found in the eye of the beholder.