Skip to content

Sigmar Polke, an artist of infinite, often ravishing pictorial jest, whose sarcastic and vibrant layering of found images and maverick painting processes left an indelible mark on the last four decades of contemporary painting, died Thursday in Cologne, Germany. He was 69.

The cause was complications from cancer, said Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at the Michael Werner Gallery New York which, along with Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne, has been Mr. Polke’s chief representative for nearly 20 years.

Mr. Polke (pronounced POLL-ka) was nearly as influential as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, the postwar titans who made his own work possible. And ultimately his influence could even exceed theirs through its sheer diversity, stylistic promiscuity and joyful, ruthless exploitation and expansion of the ways and means of several mediums.

He made prints and sculpture and in his youth, and dabbled memorably in Conceptual and installation art, with potatoes being a favored material. His peregrinations in and around the mediums of drawing and photography were extensive, meriting enormous retrospectives and forming second and third careers.

But his main achievement was to be an early and astute adopter of American Pop Art, belying its crisp, consumerist optimism with tawdry materials that added social bite, and with random splashes of paint that implied disorder and the unconscious. His paintings were essentially Conceptual in their skepticism about the very act of painting.

His images rampaged through history, ranging from demure 18th-century prints of an aristocratic astronomer that slyly signaled his interest in optics to images of the watchtowers and barbed-wire fences of Hitler’s concentration camps, stenciled onto banal printed fabric.

The images questioned accepted taste, challenging the viewer to think through how they had been made; their random juxtapositions often seemed to mimic thought itself. In all these ways he opened the door to a freewheeling combination of representation and abstraction that is still playing out.

His first solo exhibition in New York, of paintings made at least a decade earlier, was at the Holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo in 1982, and it jolted the American art scene with news of European painting’s vitality.

Mr. Polke’s antic irreverence was picked up by legions of artists in all mediums on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, the team of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Richard Prince and Lara Schnitger.

Tall, with a commanding presence and caustic wit, Mr. Polke was often fittingly called an alchemist. He had a long face that seemed to call out for a sorcerer’s pointed hat. In photographs, he often appeared to be on the verge of laughter; small, gleaming eyes behind wire-framed glasses and a sharp V of eyebrows added a sardonic if not demonic note.

Indeed, in painting he pursued a form of combustion that was not only visual but also chemical. In the 1960s he experimented with the interaction of fruit and vegetable juices. In the late 1980s he began making paintings by sprinkling silver oxide, powdered arsenic or granulated meteorite over canvases wet with resin. Some changed color over time; others were temporarily altered according to temperature and humidity.

And his large photographic images — many of them based on photos he took during a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-1970s — often seem to have emerged from a mismanaged laboratory experiment.

For much of his life Mr. Polke made extensive use of recreational drugs. Mushrooms were a frequent motif in his paintings and photographs. Unpredictable behavior was his norm, elusiveness his everyday mode, and provocative answers a matter of course.

He could be completely genial to people not in the art world, but he could also be an art dealer’s nightmare, especially in the early years of his career, when he handpicked the buyers of his works and set high, arbitrary prices.

In an essay in the catalog for Mr. Polke’s 1990 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the German collector Rainer Speck described buying a Polke in 1981 for a very high price that he suspected the artist had set by “doubling his age and adding three noughts.” Mr. Polke turned 40 that year.

When one dealer asked Mr. Polke about an exhibition they had discussed years earlier, he agreed to it on the condition that the dealer promise it would be the gallery’s last. Basically he behaved as if every aspect, ritual and protocol of art and the art world was available for manipulation.

Sigmar Polke was born Feb. 13, 1941, in Oels, in the Silesian region of eastern Germany in what is now western Poland. His family, with five or six children, fled west to Tubingen in 1945 as the Russian Army advanced but still wound up in East Germany as World War II ended. In 1953 they moved to East Berlin and crossed over to West Berlin on the subway. The young Mr. Polke pretended to be asleep to contribute to the air of normality.

The Polkes later settled near Düsseldorf, and Mr. Polke lived there or in nearby Cologne for the rest of his life. He married and divorced twice and is survived by the children of his first marriage, Anna Polke and Georg Polke.

Düsseldorf provided an excellent environment for a budding artist; it was the site of the first postwar exhibition of Dada in 1958. By 1960, its commercial galleries had held solo shows of Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly and it became a meeting place for Fluxus artists like Nam June Paik and George Maciunas starting in 1962.

In 1959 and 1960, Mr. Polke completed a glass-painting apprenticeship, an experience that contributed to his lifelong attraction to transparency. Later, many of his paintings would be on plastic — whether thick or thin, ridged or smooth — which contributed to the eerie clarity of their layering and made them seem two-sided, even when hanging on the wall.

In 1961 he enrolled in the Düsseldorf Art Academy, which was in its most experimental phase at the time. Joseph Beuys was teaching and promulgating art as a social activity, and Dieter Roth and Günther Uecker were professors. Mr. Polke’s fellow students included Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg, and in 1963 the three founded a painting movement they called Capitalist Realism. Their first show was in a storefront in Düsseldorf in 1963. Mr. Lueg would later change his name and become the Düsseldorf art dealer Konrad Fischer and would give Mr. Polke two exhibitions.

Mr. Polke’s paintings from this period depicted things like men’s socks, plastic tubs and candy bars in the uninflected style of commercial art. Soon he adapted Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots, but typically in a rougher, more mechanical version that suggested several trips through a photocopier. He had his first solo show at the Galerie René Block in West Berlin in 1966. In 1970 he had his first show with Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne.

Throughout the 1970s, German painting remained a kind of underground activity, with Beuys and German Conceptual artists like Hanne Darboven getting more international attention.

But in the 1980s Mr. Polke, along with painters like Mr. Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff, signaled a resurgence of painting that was heard around the art world. The experience bred into Mr. Polke a preference for the margins over the mainstream and a relatively modest lifestyle despite his success. He worked without an assistant and lived in Cologne in a warehouse surrounded by his books and his paintings.

Source includes:
Sigmar Polke, Whose Sly Works Shaped Contemporary Painting, Dies at 69 By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: June 11, 2010 (Obituary is from The New York Times)

Biography from the Archives of AskART