Sigmar Polke, German Pop Artist and Photographer

Sigmar Polke
Circus Figures, 2005. On display at 'Sigmar Polke' exhibition at Palazzo Grassi on April 15, 2016 in Venice, Italy. Barbara Zanon / Getty Images

Sigmar Polke (February 13, 1941—June 10, 2010) was a German painter and photographer. He created the Capitalist Realist movement with fellow German artist Gerhard Richter, which expanded upon the ideas of Pop Art from the U.S. and the U.K. Polke experimented with unique materials and techniques throughout his career.

Fast Facts: Sigmar Polke

  • Occupation: Painter and photographer
  • Born: February 13, 1941 in Oels, Poland
  • Died: June 10, 2010 in Cologne, Germany
  • Selected Works: "Bunnies" (1966), "Propellerfrau" (1969), Grossmunster Cathedral windows (2009)
  • Notable Quote: "The conventional definition of reality, and the idea of normal life, mean nothing."

Early Life and Education

Born during World War II in the Polish province of Lower Silesia, Sigmar Polke knew the impact of war from an early age. He started drawing as a young child, and his grandfather exposed him to experiments with photography.

Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke (on the right). Public Domain

When the war came to an end in 1945, Polke's family, of German descent, faced expulsion from Poland. They escaped to Thuringia, East Germany, and in 1953, the family crossed the border into West Germany, fleeing the worst years of the communist government in East Germany.

In 1959, Polke apprenticed in a stained glass factory in Dusseldorf, West Germany. He entered the Dusseldorf Arts Academy as a student in 1961. There, his approach to art developed under strong influence from his teacher Joseph Beuys, a pioneer of German performance art.

Capitalist Realism

In 1963, Sigmar Polke helped found the Capitalist Realism movement with fellow German artist Gerhard Richter. It was a response to the consumer-driven Pop Art in the U.S. and the U.K. The term is also a play on the official art of the Soviet Union, Socialist Realism.

Unlike Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans, Polke often removed brand names from his work. Instead of thinking about a company, the viewer is left looking at ordinary consumer objects. Through the banality, Polke commented on the reduction of individuality through mass production and consumption.

plastik wannen sigmar polke
Plastik-Wannen (1964). Saatchi Gallery

Exposed to Pop Art through art magazines, Polke compared it to his experiences with capitalist commodities when he first entered West Germany. He understood the sense of abundance, but he also cast a critical eye on the human impact of products.

Among the first exhibits by the Capitalist Realist group was one in which Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter sat in the window of a furniture shop as part of the art themselves. Polke held his first solo show in Rene Block's gallery in Berlin in 1966. He suddenly found himself with the status of a key artist in the German contemporary art scene.

One technique Polke borrowed from Pop Art elsewhere was Roy Lichtenstein's use of dots to create a comic-influenced style. Some observers humorously referred to Sigmar Polke's method as the use of "Polke dots."

Sigmar Polke
General view of the works of Sigmar Polke during the press opening of 'Sigmar Polke' Exhibition at Palazzo Grassi on April 15, 2016 in Venice, Italy. Barbara Zanon/Getty Images

Photography

In the late 1960s, Sigmar Polke began shooting both photographs and film. They were often images of small objects such as buttons or gloves. A few years later, in the early 1970s, he abruptly put much of his art career on hold and began traveling. Polke's journeys took him to Afghanistan, France, Pakistan, and the U.S. In 1973, he traveled with American artist James Lee Byars and shot a series of photographs of homeless alcoholics on New York's Bowery. He later manipulated the images turning them into personal works of art.

Often experimenting with LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms, Polke printed photographs with staining and other techniques that created unique pieces using the original images as mere raw material. He used both negatively and positively exposed images and sometimes placed photographs with both vertical and horizontal orientations on top of each other to create a collage effect.

'Sigmar Polke' Exhibition Presentation
General view of the works of Sigmar Polke during the press opening of 'Sigmar Polke' Exhibition at Palazzo Grassi on April 15, 2016 in Venice, Italy. Barbara Zanon / Getty Images

In the late 1960s, Polke extended his work in multiple media by creating films. One of those was titled "The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly" and consists of the artist scratching himself and using a pendulum.

Return to Painting

In 1977, Sigmar Polke assumed a position as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany, and remained on the faculty until 1991. He moved to Cologne in 1978 and lived and worked there for the rest of his life when he wasn't traveling.

In the early 1980s, Polke returned to painting as the primary medium for his art. After traveling to Southeast Asia and Australia, he incorporated substances such as meteor dust, smoke, and arsenic into his paintings, which impacted the works through chemical reactions. Polke also created multiple layers of imagery in one picture that introduced a narrative journey to the piece. His paintings grew more abstract and sometimes appeared to relate to classic Abstract Expressionism.

In the mid-1980s, Sigmar Polke created a series of paintings that used a stenciled image of a watchtower as the central subject matter. It is reminiscent of those installed along fences at Nazi concentration camps in World War II as well as those used along the Berlin Wall. Both the war and the division of the two Germanys profoundly impacted the artist's life.

treppenhaus sigmar polke
Treppenhaus (1982). Saatchi Gallery

Later Career

Sigmar Polke continued to work until his death in 2010. He continually experimented with new techniques and approaches to his idiosyncratic art. In the late 1990s, he dragged images through a photocopier to create new elongated figures. He developed a technique of machine painting in 2002 that mechanically produced paintings by creating images first on a computer that were then photographically transferred to large sheets of fabric.

Sigmar Polke
Kathereiner´s Morning Wood, on display at 'Sigmar Polke' Exhibition at Palazzo Grassi on April 15, 2016 in Venice, Italy. Barbara Zanon / Getty Images

In the last decade of his life, Polke returned to the stained glass training of his early years creating a series of stained-glass windows for the Grossmunster Cathedral in Zurich, Switzerland. He completed them in 2009.

Sigmar Polke died on June 10, 2010, from cancer.

Legacy

At the height of his career in the 1980s, Sigmar Polke influenced many rising young artists. He was at the forefront of the resurgence of interest in painting along with his fellow German artist Gerhard Richter. Polke's almost obsessive concern with layering his works and using innovative materials brings to mind the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He also extended the ideas of Pop Art beyond the commercially-focused work of artists like Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton.

Sources

  • Belting, Hans. Sigmar Polke: The Three Lies of Painting. Cantz, 1997.