Sigmar Polke was born in 1941 in Oels, a town in German Silesia (now Olesnica in Poland), and lived in East Germany. In 1953 his family escaped the GDR regime, travelling to West Germany. A¡er living in Berlin, he moved to Düsseldorf, where he began an apprenticeship in a stained-glass factory in 1959, training as a glass painter. He entered the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in 1961, where his work centred around creative processes blending painting with the dots of newsprint images, producing each dot by hand. He experimented with darkroom and photochemical manipulation in an effort to extend the boundaries of painting.
During this same period he founded Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism) with Gerhard Richter, Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg, a group which, as a kind of counterpoint to Socialist Realism and in response to Pop Art and the consumerist tendencies of the art market, proposed a critical and caricatured critique of communist and capitalist values.
Polke devoted the 1970s to travelling and produced many images documenting his visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular. He taught at the Academy of Fine Arts, Hamburg, from 1977 to 1991, but continued to travel. A¡er a stint in New Guinea and Southeast Asia in the 1980s, he began to use artificial pigments in his paintings, mixing them with industrial products such as motor oil or petrol and making them interact directly on the surface, but also introduced finely ground semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli and malachite. Resonances with and references to medieval, Renaissance or Baroque art through chemistry or alchemy preoccupied him for the rest of his career. These elements are typical of his approach: one of both hard science and magic that aims to magnify the materials through their interactions, resulting in abstract yet ever-changing landscapes, in a contemporary understanding of the fifteenth-century painting technique of sfumato. Through these visual investigations, the use of transparent or opaque supports, the artist’s willingness to distort our vision as he continually strove for blinding sunlight, and figurative abstraction, Polke’s art throws our gaze into unfamiliar territory, forcing us to really concentrate on the work in order to understand. He is one of the few artists who dared to ask the essential question of what could still serve as a painting support at the end of the twentieth century. The canvas as a space of confrontation and experimentation corresponds to a modus operandi whereby, to quote Bice Curiger, the “vital force inherent to a given material” is identified and liberated.
Polke exhibited several times at documenta from 1972 onwards, and was the subject of a retrospective shown at Eindhoven, Tübingen and Düsseldorf when he was just 33 years of age. He was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1986, and a large exhibition of his work toured the United States in 1990. In Zurich in 2010 he was awarded the Fondation Roswitha Ha¡mann Prize. Sigmar Polke passed away the same year, in his adopted home of Cologne.
Previous exhibitions (selection)
Sigmar Polke, Palazzo Grassi, Venice (Italy)
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, Tate Modern, London (United Kingdom)
Alibis: Sigmar Polke. Retrospective, Museum Ludwig, Cologne (Germany)
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, MoMA, New York (United States)
Sigmar Polke, Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble (France)
Sigmar Polke, Works & Days, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich (Switzerland)
Sigmar Polke, Carré d’art, Nîmes (France)