German Artist Sigmar Polke Was a Master of Irony and Anarchy

Polke took the piss – out of capitalism, authority and the rest of the art world.

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Oct 7 2014, 1:30am

Sigmar Polke (1941 - 2010) Season's Hottest Trends 2003

It's surprising to learn that the Tate Modern is about to hold a major retrospective of Sigmar Polke's work, and not only because he was a piss-taker and a punk. Most people haven't heard of the guy. I'd definitely never seen his work. All I vaguely knew is that he's like the lesser-known Gerhard Richter; both are German, both began their careers in the early 60s and both eventually helped coin the capitalist realism movement. The two artists created parallel paintings, but Polke never got as much credit – a bit like Picasso and Georges Braque. 

Polke is confounding. Working across film, Xerox, painting, print, drawing, photography, sculpture, performance and more, you'd be unlikely to look at a Polke piece and know it was his. There is no stand out work, per se – no "Sunflowers", no "Scream" – perhaps a reason that his name has fallen afoul of the typical list of canonised post-war painters. And yet there's an ideological coherence, a running joke; themes of anti-authority and anarchism; a policeman as a pig, a palm tree idly outlined on a piece of found fabric. Always playing with humour, Polke didn't "fuck the system": he mocked it.

Sigmar Polke pictured right, with his friend Dieter Frowein-Lyasso. (Photo via Wiki Commons.)

Born in the German-Polish no man's land of Silesia during the Second World War, Polke's family fled to Germany in 1945. It's thought that around this time his father was working as an architect for the Nazis, and if there is truth in this, it resounds in his work. Clearly indignant towards führers, and troubled by his country's repressive post-Holocaust silence on the subject, several Polke pieces confront guilt head on. He would tear images out of a eugenics guide that influenced the Nazis, and paint swastikas into his sketchbooks and murals. He once broke into a Dusseldorf gallery at night and installed a slideshow of ex-Nazi leaders under a banner that read "art will make you free", a play on "work will make you free" – the words that sat above the entrance to Auschwitz. 

Sigmar Polke (1941 - 2010) The Sausage Eater (Der Wurstesser) 1963

During Polke's teen years, his family relocated from a post-industrial East Germany to a wealthier West Germany, where the post-war economic boom had created a new, consumerist climate that Polke has never experienced before. In his early twenties he would paint products, satirising the market for luxury holidays and processed foods; he would depict a girl shoving frankfurters down her neck, or paint an ordinary chocolate bar against a striped background. By affording these items the status of the canvas, he mocked the elevated status they were given by society. The style was dubbed capitalist realism. It was the antithesis of social realism, which was popular at the time, and instead drew from the shorthand of advertising as a figurative comment on capitalism. 

Sigmar Polke (1941 - 2010) Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) 1963

The style was also a nod to the consumer-driven nature of the Western art world. In 1963, less than a year after Andy Warhol's famous screenprints of American movie icons Troy Donahue and Marilyn Monroe, Polke created his own version, portraying President John F Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald – as if to sarcastically say, "buy this". This sarcastic sense of humour stuck as Polke continued to pick upon the tropes of artistic trends and quietly deride them. One 1968 Malevich-inspired piece called "Modern Art" is described by Tate curator Mark Godfrey as "a collection of clichés amassed on a page" – arguably a parodist's take on abstraction. It's rare, but you can walk the Tate retrospective playing "spot the references" knowing that the artist wasn't borrowing the styles of others, but acutely critiquing them. 

Sigmar Polke (1941 - 2010). Modern Art (Moderne Kunst) 1968

Polke's humour frequently paired high and low culture for the sake of irony, pitting what we might consider "good art" against "bad art". In a piece called "Plastic Tubs" (1964) he painted a series of containers with delicate and realistic shading and then deliberately left half of the painting unfinished, as if to suggest that "proper art" is boring. Critics have argued that he painted the tubs to demonstrate the banality of existing forms, in the same way that he'd appropriate other artists' traits, or appropriate images from magazines or the use of patterned textiles. He used to joke that this was laziness, but a retrospective that features his later materials – everything from snail juice to uranium – proves that Polke was neither lazy nor lacking in imagination.

Sigmar Polke (1941 - 2010) Cardboardology (Pappologie) 1968–69

If anything, he was a smart ass – a master contrarian. When MoMA curator Kathy Halbreich approached him about the retrospective almost a decade ago he was reluctant. He wanted to keep people dislodged and uncertain. She describes his sometimes-caustic nature, and what sounds like a zero tolerance to the apparatus of bullshit. "Polke's friends recall his unusual ability to see through the deceit, subterfuge and artifice of polite society," said Kathy, "to penetrate the trivialities of the status quo in order to make visible its unstable values."

Halbreich acknowledges the risk in exhibiting Polke's work: that his humour could be misinterpreted as cynicism. On this point she quotes Slavov Žižek: "Comedy does not rely on the undermining of our dignity with reminders of the ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence... Or, to put it another way, what effectively happens when all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated universal values, and this negativity itself is the only true remaining universal force." To quote Žižek seems fitting; both he and Polke are pop culture theorists in a way, questioning everything we think that we know, and making you do the same.  

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 – 2010 runs from the 9th of October 2014 to the 8th of February 2015 at London's Tate Modern. 
You can find out more about the Tate's film programme on Polke, which runs alongside the exhibition, here

@MillyAbraham

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