Biography of Sigmar Polke
Often referred to as the alchemist, Sigmar Polke (born 1941 in Silesia, Poland, died 2010 in Cologne, Germany) had an inexhaustible curiosity for a plethora of substances and materials. His studio came to resemble a scientist's lab, as he experimented with liquids, powders and metals to see what effect they had on each other and on the canvas. A learned painter, it was in the 60s that he founded the 'Capitalist realism' together with his contemporaries Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg (later to become the well-known art dealer Konrad Fischer), with whom he studied at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. It was with this parody of the American Pop Art movement that Polke showed his penchant for irony – the artists critiqued how suddenly Germans desired all things American, this newfound popular culture and consumerism spurred on by a change in politics. With an allusion to 'Socialist Realism', the artists' movement made subversive commentary against new trends in everyday life, politics and the economy.
As with the 'fake' movement that he co-founded, Polke found his inspiration in the everyday life, be it household magazines, advertising or common prints on fabrics, and changed the imagery, creating new codes and messages, spurring the viewer on to reflect upon the meaning behind original and adapted image. The artist questioned the link between disposition and signification thereof, no matter with which medium he chose to work. And his interest had no limits – painting, photography, photocopy and printing.
A good example of the various techniques Polke would use is the work Freundinnen (1967) which was a found image-still of a Hollywood movie with the actress Elke Sommer. The first step was to enlarge the image, which he then reproduced several times as a print, before adding hand-painted colour to each print. Interestingly, the image was available multiple times until Polke enlarged it, making it a unique work. Using offset printing technique, he reproduced the unique image to create a multiple of 25, but by painting each multiple individually he created 25 unique works. This one work shows the multi-faceted interpretations of the multiple, how minute changes or alterations can make a work unique or an edition – hereby questioning the established notions of artistic originality and the 'true' value of an image. What happens to an image taken out of context?
Polke's career came full circle when he made the windows for the Grossmünster in Zurich, Switzerland, which turned out to be his last public project. Before joining the Art Academy, Polke trained as a glass painter so this site-specific work allowed him to apply that which he had learned as a young man in combination with his interest in various materials and fascination for the art history canon. Seven Agate windows, a semi-precious stone to reflect the beginning of time, and 5 representations from the Old Testament, combine to make a visual overview of both history and art history – the biblical representations are in unison with the modern Agate windows.
For Polke the fascination lay with pushing boundaries, seeking the unpredictable, searching for limitations in display, material or medium, to then break those barriers and create new ways of understanding art. He created a personal aesthetic, which he employed eagerly to communicate his message – taking imagery out of the original context to give it a new meaning, with irony, humour and subversive messages.