Sigmar Polke is born in Oels, Silesia, in 1941. After an apprenticeship as a glass painter, Polke studies painting with Karl Otto Götz and Gerhard Hoehme at theKunstakademie Düsseldorf. From 1977 until 1991 Polke teaches at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg.
Polke’s painting is characterized through his engaging with everyday perceptions of reality and with trivial everyday culture. The omnipresence of pictures provokes his debate with their truth value and their »false« reality. In an ironical manner he includes the banal and the commercially appealing in his art, exposing the absurdity of established ways of reading and viewing things.
In his early works Polke deliberately uses petty bourgeois fabric patterns for decoration and clothing as painting grounds for his themes that include portraits of movie idols as well as banal objects such as sausages, socks, and chololate (Wurstesser, 1963; Socken, 1963; Urlaubsbild, 1966). Ornament and picture, pattern and ground, interact in his comic-style collages and riddle pictures. Unlike the works of the representatives of Pop Art, Polke’s wilful pictures thrive on the cynical-critical as well as on the silly tone of persiflage.
Aside from his interest in the world of advertising and the desires it generates, Polke also focuses on photo reports in the print media. In his raster pictures (1963 — 69)he robs the photos presented in the media – with their claim to authenticity and truth – of their power to create illusions, by pointing out their constructedness, by reducing them to rasters with low resolution (BZ am Mittag, 1965, Freundinnen, 1965). The pictures thus enforce a distanced and distancing kind of viewing. YetPolke’s works also adapt art historical patterns, they defamiliarize citations of styles and motifs through painting things over or covering them with material glued to the picture. They thus subvert established notions of artistic originality. After the 1970s Polke increasingly works with photographs he brings back from his travels to Mexico, Australia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and he experiments with the technique of offset-printing.
The technical act of creating a picture and its emergent materiality becomes a focus in the 1980s. Polke now experiments with various chemical substances and makes use of their capacity for processual change in order to create changing aesthetic effects on the support. Among the materials he uses – always in defamiliarizing ways – are hydro and thermo paints, whose chemical composition causes different and mostly uncontrollable color effects. Polke’s pour- and drip-paintings thus cause an unpredictable and mysterious impact. The artist himself compares the changes in the works he now creates, works that indeed have a mystical appearance, with evolutionary natural processes and alchemist traditions. Yet they also manifest a pictorial invention that is similar to the appearance of the virtual image. Interactive phenomena, reverting reactions within the picture, seem to be perceivable for short moments in time. This is of importance not only for Polke’s contribution to the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1986, but also for his Laterna Magica (1988 — 1996), an Installation consisting of a sequence of transparent images whose wooden frames are set up in space without support, like paravents. The projections enable unusual forms of a temporal and non-fixable perception of art.
In the 1990s Polke’s works again deal with current social and political themes (Aufschwung Ost, 1992). Yet at the same time, they make use of the aesthetic vocabulary the artist has already created, in order to visualize changing positions and unfixable perspectives in the picture as medium (Mercedes, 1994).
Sigmar Polke died on June 10, 2010, in Cologne.
Sigmar Polke. Die Editionen 1963 — 2000: Ausst.-Kat. hg. von Jürgen Becker und Claus von der Osten, Ostfildern Ruit 2000
Sigmar Polke. Die drei Lügen der Malerei: Ausst.-Kat., Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, hg. v. Hans Belting, Bonn, Stuttgart 1997
Erfle, Anna: Sigmar Polke. Der Traum des Menelaos, Köln 1997
Sigmar Polke. Neue Bilder: Ausst.Kat., Städt. Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach, hg. v. Dierk Stemmler, Mönchengladbach 1992 //Schulz-Hoffmann, Carla; Bischof, Ulrich: Sigmar Polke. Schleifenbilder, Stuttgart 1992
Sigmar Polke. Athanor, il Padiglione: Ausst.-Kat. XLII Biennale di Venezia 1986, Pavillon der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Venedig 1986