Held in the same private collection for the past five decades – and unseen in public since 1983, when it was the poster image for the group show Kunst Nach 45 at the Frankfurter Kunstverein – Alpenveilchen/Flowers (1967) is an exceptional large-scale example of Sigmar Polke’s Rasterbilder. Also exhibited in the artist’s major 1976 retrospective at the Kunsthalle Tübingen, the work sees Polke employing his dotted raster technique to create an image with the shimmering, hazy beauty of Monet’s waterlilies: red and white blooms hover weightlessly amid blades of deep blue-green grass. Derived from magnified printed photographs, Polke’s dots were similar to the Ben-Day dots used by Roy Lichtenstein in the 1960s. Alpenveilchen/Flowers, with its pointedly English title, also surely echoes the screenprinted Flowers of Andy Warhol. Like these American Pop artists, Polke wanted his work to reflect the forms of mechanised reproduction that made up the modern visual environment. Alongside Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg – fellow students at Düsseldorf’s Staatliche Kunstakademie, where he studied from 1961 to 1967 – Polke had founded ‘Capitalist Realism’, an anti-bourgeois movement that satirised middle-class conformity in ways that had much in common with Pop art. Where Lichtenstein dutifully replicated his regular, perfect printed dots by hand, however, and Warhol’s flowers offered a chilling vision of nature as flattened mass-media commodity, Polke corroded and subverted his raster structures to create far more equivocal, shifting and multi-layered images. In the present work, he stencils some blooms as crisp, blank voids of white, and blushes others with red; some red zones sit out of register with the petals, floating freely as vaporous areas of colour. Parts of the grass dissolve into pale mist, while others – deployed in grids overlaid at haphazard angles – congeal into dark, bruise-like density. Not content with discarding the norms of traditional easel painting, Polke went further to destabilise the printing-based idiom that he had co-opted. Beyond his Pop interest in the visual impact of television, advertising and photography, his Rasterbilder embody the far-reaching sense of openness and mutability that was central to his artistic outlook. ‘I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about’, Polke said of these works. ‘The way that motifs change from recognisable to unrecognisable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open … Many dots vibrating, swinging, blurring, reappearing: one could think of radio signals, telegraphic images, television come to mind’ (S. Polke, quoted in D. Hülsmanns, ‘Kulter des Rasters: Ateliergerspräch mit dem Maler Sigmar Polke’, Rheinische Post, 10 May 1966). As organic and hallucinogenic as it is mechanical, Alpenveilchen/Flowers’ tantalising visual flux reflects its fluid meaning.
Polke and his Capitalist Realist colleagues stated in 1963 that ‘For the first time in Germany, we are showing paintings for which such terms as Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, New Objectivity, Naturalism, German Pop and the like are appropriate. Pop art recognizes the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomenon and turns their attributes, formulations and content, through artifice, into art’ (S. Polke with M. Küttner, K. Lueg and G. Richter, ‘Letter to a Newsreel Company’, August 1963, in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 16). Polke, who had lived in East Germany as a child before fleeing to the West at the age of twelve, was keenly aware of the power and promise of the printed image, as well as its capacity for deceit. The West German ‘economic miracle’ saw purchasing power increase by 73% between 1950 and 1960. Amid this dramatic wave of affluence, much of German society settled into a mentality of complacent consumerism. As a teenager in West Germany, Polke was exposed to magazines and newspapers flooded with pictures of a prosperous, contented nation. He was deeply critical of the role of printed media – a cheap and powerful socialising force – in promoting this way of life, especially when austerity was such a recent reality for most of its viewers. In Alpenveilchen/Flowers, Polke underscores the mass-media origin of his image – the work’s raster structure exposes it as a visual quotation, taken from a printed source – and amplifies both its banality and seduction. He takes a mechanism used to transmit images of desire and aspiration and dissolves it into ambiguity, thwarting the ability to see clearly.
The magnification of Polke’s source image frames the flowers in enormous, absorbing close-up. To stand in front of the work is to plunge into a tall forest of grass. Viewed at even closer range, the picture dissolves into an abstract field of cellular form. Much as his raster technique was not born solely of a Pop concern with new visual media, Polke’s play with scale and colour was part of a broader attitude to the instability of perception. His long-running fascination with light and translucency – evident in the stencilled and overlaid elements of Alpenveilchen/Flowers – can be traced back to his teenage apprenticeship at a stained-glass workshop in Düsseldorf. Later, during the late 1960s and 1970s, he travelled widely and experimented with psychedelic substances to expand his sensory parameters. ‘I learned a great deal from drugs’, he said, ‘– the most important thing being that the conventional definition of reality, and the idea of “normal life,” mean nothing’ (S. Polke in K. McKenna, ‘Sigmar Polke’s Layered Look,’ LA Times, 3 December 1995). Polke came to see the ‘order’ that we seek to impose on reality as entirely arbitrary, and reflected this in his works by constantly disrupting pictorial convention. Alpenveilchen/Flowers’ blow-up scale relates it to a group of works that centre around the motif of a mushroom: a magical, fictional fungus in the painting Alice in Wonderland (1971), based on an illustration for the Lewis Carroll story in which it causes Alice to either shrink or grow to an enormous size, but also a real-world hallucinogen that can change the way the user sees the world. ‘Polke loved nature,’ Karin Rotmann observes, ‘as has so often been attested – the German forests, meadows, and promontories, as well as the Ticino Alps, and North African deserts – and for him nature included the toxic peyote cactus, angel’s trumpets growing in his garden, fly agaric, and drugs of indigenous cultures, in addition to synthetic products created in laboratories. These promised “possibilities beyond our wildest dreams”’ (K. Rotmann, ‘Polke In Context: A Chronology’, in Sigmar Polke: Alibis, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate Modern, London, 2014, p. 33).
The mirage of pictorial fields in Alpenveilchen/Flowers forces the viewer to engage in a visual process of filtering and transmutation. With no perfect reading or perspective from which to decode it, there is no way to master the painting. No single narrative takes the high ground, and we must submit to a profusion of simultaneous and divergent possibilities. Hijacking the language of printed and televisual media, Polke pictures an experience of the contemporary image-world whose complex, multidimensional surface we must navigate, organise and sift through. His mode of critique is not at odds with transcendent beauty: the raster technique takes Pop art’s parodic edge to an existential level, creating a picture with multiple, interacting layers that can constantly generate new meanings. Polke would go on to use a similar stencilling method in his celebrated Hochsitz (Watchtower) paintings (1984-88), which, with their watchtowers’ ominous military outlines hovering against a ground of chintzy fabric, figure a dark spectre in the veils of his country’s postwar consciousness. To see disparate realities at once can sometimes reveal uncomfortable truths. If Alpenveilchen/Flowers has no such shadowy subtext, it nonetheless stands as an ever-timely reminder that there are always different ways of seeing any one thing. Polke sings an ode to the joys of openness, diversity and change, and his anodyne subject blossoms into a radical perceptual adventure.