Sigmar Polke & Capitalist Realism

Sigmar Polke is by far my favorite artist / painter of all time.  

He is the founder of the Capitalist Realism ("Kapitalistischen Realismus") movement in Germany in 1963,  combining paint, photography, and printmaking into multi-layered, vibrant works. His paintings feature elements from American Pop art, abstraction, parodies of consumer society, and a subversive  materials. Polke’s experimentation with technology, and his hybridization of artistic influences was highly influential for generations of German artists.



This painting, The Illusionist, is my favorite. I saw it for the first time at the Dallas Art Museum's exhibit devoted to the Performing Arts in 2009. I remember standing in front of this gigantic lacquered painting, spanning 8612" by 112'—in other words, most of the wall—and felt completely memorized by the movement and color of his characters.  The imagery in Polke's later works demonstrate a sort of summa of Polke’s work, reprising the casual paint pours and loose, sketchy brushwork; figures blown up from cartoons and photographs; collaged, printed fabrics that burlesque geometric abstraction or portray cartoon ghosts; and engravings from the 17th through 19th centuries. In the aggregate, they explore an uneasy space shaped by optical illusion and multiple viewpoints, and furnished with a supernatural congregation of angels, devils (and devil cats), imps, and ectoplasm.




A number of paintings, collectively titled “Seeing Rays,” draw from a 17th-century engraving by the scholar and cleric Johann Zahn that depicts two gentlemen observing the sky from different vantage points. Lines emanating from their eyes fan out into the heavens—or draw them back into each eye as a vanishing point. In some examples, Polke shows the two men gazing at a dragon that is in the original engraving, while in others the dragon drops out entirely, or streaks across an astronomical firmament printed on fabric to which the gel is fixed. Polke photocopied the engraving from Zahn’s 1685 book, Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus, sive Telescopium (The Teledioptric Artificial Eye, or Telescope), and the figures were drastically bent or stretched as he manipulated the reproduction in the copying process.



In the course of making The Illusionist and two other works, Sigmar Polke started experimenting with various mediums that would allow him to paint on them while being transparent to imagery over which they were applied. After a year and a half, he and his assistants arrived at a polymer gel that could hold its shape when combed into lenticular ridges. Usually he orients the corrugations vertically, like massive blow-ups of the plastic ridges that animate optical “3D” postcards, allowing butterfly wings to flap or Jesus to move on the cross.


His  26 “Lens Paintings”  cause nothing so perceptually dramatic, though the images do change as you move from side to side.



His artistic practice embraced and incorporated mistakes such as drips, tears, and copy printing errors into his paintings. His experimentation with photography in the 1970s intentionally disregarded the standard rules: “dropping the wrong chemicals onto the paper, turning on the light during development, brushing the developer on selectively, using exhausted fixer.” Polke would then use these ‘mistakes’ to explore his interest in abstract pictorial space.  Polke’s irreverence for classical artistic practices made for an innovative and stylistically uncategorizable body of work that uses photography and printed materials as source material, silkscreened layers on top of painterly expanses, chemical substances and other non-art materials within a collage-like aesthetic.




The separate rivulets of paint that run down each face of the vertical ridges and deep in their troughs come alternately into view as you shift from one perspective to another. And the milky transparency of the polymer allows the painted and collaged image surface beneath it to be visible. The combined effect is of a chilly dimensionality, like leaves and newspapers (and, perhaps, bodies) trapped in ice, an effect not illusionistic but rather concrete, as of physical presence. Competing worlds of simple optical manipulation and magical rites, of department-store printed patterned fabric seen through the gel and freely poured paint applied to its front, are overlaid, the medium that seals them together also holding them apart. The result is a treatise on the contingencies—the partial failings, and also the subjectivities—of vision. It is plenty. In fact, one of Polke’s most important themes is plentitude, with its promise of fulfillment on the one hand, and threat of excess on the other.




Zahn invented a portable camera and conducted several experiments on the optics of multiple viewpoints; his engraving, an early form of mechanical reproduction, is a diagram of embodied reality (the two men) gazing at myth (the dragon). Nonetheless, it is several steps less mediated than Polke’s painting of a projection of a manipulated copy of an engraving. Polke was severely nearsighted since he was four (he wore eyeglasses for most of his life) and he dated his interest in optics to his childhood.