‘I like it when my art includes references to the past, to my roots. I cannot forget what my precursors have done. Even if the results look new, as far as I am concerned, as an artist I’m following an academic path. I like tracking down certain pictures, techniques and procedures. It is a way of understanding what is largely determined by tradition’
(S. Polke, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘Weird Intelligence’, in Modern Painters 16, no. 4, 2003, p. 78).
‘Polke found a... generative power in the destructive mechanisms of kitsch, in the ways in which its lowbrow sentimentality distorts and trivializes the original without regard to status. Of course, he recognized kitsch as a product that with its repackaging of cultural traditions for mass appeal celebrated the norms he rejected. In characteristic contradictory fashion he both appreciated and poked fun at kitsch, understanding how its vulgarity exposed concerns about what matters, what should be cared for and what is memorable. But by incorporating it into his work, Polke didn’t intend to make his art easier to grasp; in creating a new context for the hackneyed image, he aggressively disrupted its workaday or standard meaning, further complicating the commonplace’
(K. Halbreich, ‘Alibis’, in Sigmar Polke Alibis 1963-2010, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, p. 77).
Painted in 2004, Sigmar Polke’s Untitled is a stunning convolution of disparate abstract and figurative imagery magically combining before our eyes to create the imperious image of legendary film director and master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, whose features seem to emerge, as if by magic, from a faux-leopard-skin fabric background.
An elegant combination of two distinct styles of painting that Polke had first pioneered in the 1960s – his Stoffbilder (fabric paintings) and his Rasterbilder (Raster-dot paintings) – Untitled is a startling fusion of these styles into a powerful and singular pop-art image of absurdist correlation. With the seemingly accidentally splashed image of Hitchcock’s features appearing to somehow relate to the fake-natural fabric ground of the painting, this manifestly abstract work, with its fascinating constellations of pattern and dots, is a picture that powerfully asserts the visual force of an icon at the very same time that it exposes its own inherent artifice as a pictorial construction of apparently randomly assembled elements. In this way, and as in so many of Polke’s creations of the twenty-first century, Untitled is a picture made both for and in response to our modern, image-saturatedworld of mass-media and its endless, production, reproduction and manipulation of imagery and icons. Like much of Polke’s work, this imposing picture is a self-demonstrating illusion that displays itself to be a playful manipulation of imagery, but also one aimed at calling the whole nature of vision, perception and reality into question.
Although random, the bizarre correlation of Hitchcock’s face and a fake leopard-skin fabric background that appears here is also strangely fitting. Hitchcock’s memorable features were famous for suddenly appearing, seemingly at random or at an unexpected moment in his films. His face, here rendered by a sequence of raster-dots, is, therefore, to some extent, identified in the popular imagination with the notion of sudden and unexplained appearances. Leopard-skin too, famous for its spots, is a material that enjoyed a particular vogue in the 1950s and ‘60s when Hitchcock films were at the height of popularity and was often modeled by many of his leading ladies from Kim Novak to Tippi Hedrun. Polke had first used a leopard-skin fabric in one of the earliest of his Stoffbilder in 1966 for this reason. The industrially-manufactured fake leopard-skin-fabric he used in Frau im Spiegel for example, symbolised the class aspiration of the period as well as the illusive power of imagery, the lies of advertising and, most especially, the lure of the exotic upon the German bourgeois imagination.
The juxtaposition of Hitchcock’s face with a fake, leopard-skin fabric may not, therefore, be as arbitrary as it at first appears, but then, this is the nature of Polke’s art. More often than not, Polke carefully planned how to make his work look as if it had suddenly materialised by some happy chance or accident. The way in which the spills of paint over the surface of the fabric ground have been placed at the centre of the canvas and then carefully allowed to drip so as to seem chance splashes randomly applied is a case in point.
Most spectacular, however, is the manner in which Polke has correlated the black-and-white pattern of the raster-dot mesh depicting Hitchcock to the repeated, but more randomly organised pattern of dots in the repeated folds of the leopard-skin fabric. The conjunction of these two groups of dots appears to imply some kind of hidden order at work within the myriad patterns that the dots generate - as if they were particles coalescing to form a picture of reality. Here Polke appears to be visually exposing the structures and codes by which random, abstract chaos becomes, order, method, meaning and image. As Sean Rainbird has written of Polke’s life-long fascination with dots, ‘Polke’s preoccupation with dots lay in a fascination with the devices and codes by which knowledge is structured and imparted. The magnified dots are based on a system of mechanical reproduction that denies the authentic touch and thus reduces the aura of individual ‘finish’. This strategy is clearly visible, for instance, in the benday dots of Lichtenstein’s paintings. Polke, however, negated the system’s effectiveness by corrupting its simple codes. He magnified the dots beyond recognition, and … combined dots of a different scale and colour. On other occasions he corroded the system itself, so that the dots congealed and forfeited their function of carrying information. In these endless hand-painted variations and combinations lay, ironically, the power of the painter to undermine the dominance of the subject’ (S. Rainbird, ‘Seams and Appearances: Learning to Paint with Sigmar Polke’, Sigmar Polke: Join the Dots, exh. cat., Liverpool, 1995, p. 12).
Fusing the apparently natural pattern of dots on a leopard-skin and a raster-pattern of dots mechanically produced to convey an image of Hitchcock, Untitled asserts itself as a demonstrably abstract painting. But through this, and in its apparently arbitrary use of disparate imagery, it also appears to address the fluid, interchangeable and manipulatable nature of the image in a twenty-first-century age of image-overload. The major exhibition of Polke’s recent work (from 1998-2003) that travelled from Dallas to the Tate Modern, between 2003 and 2004, for example, was full of paintings that also made this point. Entitled The History of Everything, it drew, as ever for Polke, on an extraordinary range of imagery pulled from a wide variety of sources of information and knowledge-transfer but, in particular, pointed to new, uniquely twenty-first-centiry image-sources and image-manipulation devices. Many of the works of this exhibition made use not just of newspaper, magazine and television imagery, as well as nineteentg-century illustrations, printing errors and photocopier distortions, but also of images culled from the internet, from social-media, satellite imagery and drone technology. The overriding impression was of the awesome and often sinister power of imagery to carry meaning and to influence opinion in an age of ever-expanding image-manipulation and mass-media technology. Something too, of this sinister side to our modern-media image glut is, perhaps, also conveyed in the famously all-knowing stare of Alfred Hitchcock looking directly out at the viewer in this impressive and stylish work of 2004 that Polke made in the immediate aftermath of his The History of Everything exhibition.