Upon a ground of inky black, as matte and flawless as darkness, pigment glows phosphorescently. Each pool and eddy, each drop and trickle, is delicately translucent, spanning the gamut from transparency to opaqueness, creating a mesmerising iridescence of half-tones. Running in delicate rivulets, the paint weaves and winds an intricate web of chance: faltering momentarily, collecting, then turning, flowing on. Framing this serendipitous alchemical spill, contrasting its spontaneity yet echoing its form, an opalescent white is applied in generous, broad brushstrokes. Alluringly ambiguous, this work is Sigmar Polke’s ode to the phantasmagorical, transfigurative power of the accidental: in the half-light, where vision blurs and reason falters, Untitled takes on its captivating, ghostly shape.
Created in 1999, Untitled is a consummate example of Polke’s late abstract works, executed on an imposing scale. Abandoning premeditated composition and calculated result, the artist instead investigates the physicality of materials. Sacrificing the venerable artistic heritage of his paints and pigments, Polke dilutes, blends and contaminates them, patiently observing the mysteriously unpredictable effects. '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 E. Klein, Sigmar Polke: Farbproben-Materialversuche-Probierbilder aus den Jahren 1973-86, exh. cat., Cologne, Galerie Klein, 1999). The surface of Untitled, horizontally oriented, becomes the alchemist’s bench, where liquidity and dryness collide to concoct chance occurrence. Yet the artist remains a master of this process, modifying the quantities of poured liquid, tipping the support in different directions to change the drift of the run off, spreading pigment with swift, nimble brushwork. Polke’s command of these techniques can be seen in another Untitled work from the same year, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in which the artist similarly explores the lustrous, shimmering afterglow created by the interplay of black ground and diluted luminescent paint.
Polke’s relation to abstraction evolved over the course of his practice. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the artist confronted abstraction as a vogue worthy only of irreverent parody, a treatment to which he similarly subjected Pop and Minimal Art. In works such as Moderne Kunst (Modern Art), 1968, rigid Suprematist geometry and curving lines float alongside each other on a black ground; over these, Polke adds a self-aware Abstract Expressionist splash. The composition is inscribed, in slanting sans-serif, with its ironic title: ‘Modern Art’. In this and other works of the period, Polke quoted and debased the language of abstraction associated with Kazimir Malevich, Vasily Kandinsky, and Jackson Pollock, turning each set of forms into a cliché. In the 1970s, however, Polke’s interests widened to experimental photography: images which he captured on journeys to Paris, New York, Afghanistan and São Paulo were subjected to a range of radical interventions in the darkroom. Often under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, the artist created arrays of kaleidoscopic photographs which twisted filmstrips, superimposed and double-exposed images, and obscured content with spilling pours of heady chemicals.
Transposing the lessons of the darkroom to painting, Polke became intoxicated with the rebellious interaction of substances, combining powdered violet pigment and poisonous Shweinfurt green, managanese and cinnabar, meteor dust and lapis lazuli in his works. In the unpredictable flux of these materials, the artist could be liberated from the impositions of intellect, allowing nonrational conditions such as gravity, accident and the power of the unconscious to dictate the result. Ambiguous, capricious and inscrutable Untitled is a testament to this passion for wild experimentation. Yet the work is mediated by the allure of lustrous, shimmering colour, which was so important to Polke: ‘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’ (S. Polke, quoted in ‘Poison is Effective; Painting Is Not: Bice Curiger In Conversation with Sigmar Polke’, in Parkett, no. 26, 1990).