Sigmar Polke was one of the most influential artists of the mid-to-late 20th century. German by birth and education, his art garnered international attention throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and he continued to make pioneering art up until his final year in 2010. Polke spearheaded the German Pop Art movement called Capitalist Realism during the 1970s alongside Gerhard Richter and several others. Like Richter, Polke derived his subject matter from the world of mass media and popular culture, creating an acerbic, yet witty commentary on the nature of capitalist society in the wake of World War II and the political instabilities of Soviet Germany. We look through some of the most defining features of this radical and influential contemporary artist.
Sigmar Polke Was a Pioneering German Artist
Sigmar Polke achieved a significant international reputation during his lifetime, but his art came from a resolutely German sensibility. Born in Poland in 1941, he grew up in East Germany from the age of 2 onwards. The family fled from East to West Germany when Polke was 12 years old, escaping the post-war restrictions of communist East Germany. He trained at the Dusseldorf Arts Academy, and his teachers included esteemed German artists Karl Otto Gotz and Joseph Beuys. Both teachers encouraged their students to take a radical, politicized approach to making art.
An Inventor of German Pop Art (Capitalist Realism)
Polke was still a student at Dusseldorf when he teamed up with his friends and fellow students Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg to found the Capitalist Realism movement in 1963. The artists called the movement Germany’s answer to Pop Art. In contrast with both American and British Pop Art, their take on bringing popular culture into their art was far more cutting, edgy and off-beat, with an undercurrent of the sinister and uneasy. The movement’s name was a play on post-war capitalism that dominated West Berlin, and the Socialist Realism of the East.
Polke in particular often made oblique or obscure references to distinctly German themes. For example, in Polke’s early painting The Sausage Eater, 1963, he paints a generic, everyman figure devouring an entire row of sausages, a symbol of German luxury food exports, and thus destroying himself in the process, a metaphor for the destructive habits of capitalism.
The King of Dots
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
One of Sigmar Polke’s trademark stylistic tropes was the use of grainy, pixelated dots, which he called his ‘rasterbilder’, made up of rasterised dots. On the one hand, Polke made reference to Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots, which themselves references the world of mass-produced printing processes. But Polke’s dots are dirtier and grainier, replicating the language of cheap photocopiers and their ability to disperse printed images into a smattering of indistinct, almost pointillist dots. In his early rasterbilder Polke painted each dot by hand, using a pencil eraser dipped in paint or pigment to mark the page, and leaving his mistakes evident on the page.
Later, he became increasingly inventive, bringing dots into a range of printed processes. We see Polke’s painted dots come alive in artworks such as Girlfriends, 1965, The Goatwagon, 1992, and the later Untitled (Triptych), 2002.
He said, “I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim about. The way that motifs change from recognizable to unrecognizable, the undecided, ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open.”
Sigmar Polke Worked Across a Wide Range of Media
From early in his career Polke was a great experimenter, and he expanded his ideas around how German political and popular culture imagery could be translated into works of art. Among the many techniques he worked with are painting, printmaking, photography, performance, sculpture, installation, film and video. In all his artworks Polke made wry, cutting commentaries about pertinent socio-political themes. His approach to making art was widely influential across Europe throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most notably with German artists including Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen.