‘[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).
‘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).
Holographic swathes of blue and gold dispersion fluid are virtuosically swept and dripped across a trio of canvases in Sigmar Polke’s Untitled. With their phantasmagorical distribution of colour, texture and form, these shimmering abstractions hover like metamorphic beings suspended within a dense black void. Executed in 2000, the work draws upon the principles of chance and instability that had formed the backbone to Polke’s practice since the 1960s. Exploiting the unpredictable nature of dispersion fluid, the triptych envisions an unknown world of volatile form, chemical interaction, hidden structure and perpetual flux. 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 prompted Polke to re-evaluate what he termed the ‘history of everything’, probing the contingency of culture and science in a bid to capture the diffuse nature of twenty-first century reality. In the present work, we are invited to glimpse an intergalactic realm of speed, transformation and uncertainty – an intangible ether in which physical matter morphs and mutates. As Maika Pollack has suggested, ‘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).
Alongside his contemporary Gerhard Richter, Polke sought the complete deconstruction of painting; to strip it back and unearth new directions 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, forms and media, resisting definition at every turn. Embracing enigma, uncertainty, simultaneity and instability, Polke sought to interrogate the impenetrable, mysterious, image-laden surface of the experience that we have come to call ‘reality’. Using the artificial surface of his own pictures as a magical arena within which to re-evaluate this notion, Polke exploited deliberately unstable, reactive and untameable materials - dispersion fluid, transparent lacquer and resin, interference colours and a variety of solvents, acids and photographically sensitive chemicals. 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). In the present work, Polke’s medium takes on a life of its own, coalescing into strange, molecular forms that writhe across the surface of the canvas.
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. Over the course of his career, the triptych became one of the artist’s favoured formats, permitting multiplicity, dialogue and conflict across multiple surfaces. ‘The processes are what interest me’, Polke explained. ‘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).