Modest, casual, crude, playful, mercurial, unpredictable, unfinished, enigmatic, chaotic, subversive–these are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Sigmar Polke’s art. The alternately complimentary and critical connotations of these words are equally applicable to the paintings for which he is best known and to the photographs that play an increasingly important role in his work.
Born in 1941 in the eastern German town of Oels (now Olesnica, Poland), Polke moved to West Germany in 1953. Having sketched constantly as a child, he began an apprenticeship in a stained-glass factory at age eighteen. Two years later, he was accepted into the Düsseldorf Art Academy where he continued to study until 1967. Together with classmate Gerhard Richter, he launched Capitalist Realism, an art movement that, like Pop Art in the United States, mined popular culture and advertising for visual language. Borrowing subject matter and techniques from a wide variety of sources and layering them in unconventional ways, Polke quickly gained recognition as one of the most influential artists in postwar Germany. Resisting easy categorization by theme, medium, or style, his paintings expanded viewers’ appreciation for the expressive potential of materials.
Polke took up photography in the mid-1960s. Guided by curiosity about the medium’s optical and chemical properties, he experimented with printing techniques in the darkroom to transform the raw material of the negative through the alchemy of black-and-white photochemistry. Travel to Paris, New York, Afghanistan, and Brazil in the 1970s, as well as daily life in Hamburg, where he taught from 1977 to 1991, and in Cologne, provided rich subject matter for his photographs.