Multi-media artist, Sigmar Polke, had the capacity to be at once irreverent, playful, and acerbic. From painting to photography and film to installations and prints, Polke’s work, which often incorporated non-traditional materials and techniques, was above all a critique of art itself. Sometimes veiled and sometimes confrontational, the messages conveyed in his work raise serious questions about aesthetic, political, and social conventions.
For Polke, the production of art was consistently a dialogue between himself and the viewer, which presented virtually limitless interpretive possibilities. Along with a group of fellow artists that included Gerhard Richter, he introduced the term, Capitalist Realism, which refers loosely to commodity-based art. Further, and specifically in the case of Polke’s work, Capitalist Realism constitutes not only a critique of Pop art and the commodification of art and capitalism overall but also of the idealistic and overtly nationalistic Soviet Social Realism that Polke was particularly exposed (and opposed) to.
The cynically witty Polke helped launch the Capitalist Realism style as a response to American and British Pop art. Rather than simply commenting on mass production and conspicuous consumption Polke went a step further. With works such as Chocolate Painting, he eliminated signifiers like labels with brand names in order to poke fun at notions of individuality and uniqueness. Indeed, despite the biting commentary of Pop art and its critique of capitalist consumer homogeneity, works like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, with their labels and their sameness, still sold for large sums. The objects in Polke’s Pop works are stripped of such identifiers, which emphasizes how banal they actually are.
At the fore of Polke’s experiments was the impulse to challenge virtually every convention of art, often in surprising and ingenious ways. His iconoclastic tendencies extended not merely to content but to the materials of the works themselves, which were often adamantly non-traditional. From uranium and meteorite dust, brightly printed fabric and soot, to bubble wrap and potatoes, Polke’s artistic odyssey took him and his work to the potential limits of creation.
The subject of appropriation was a major theme in the work of Polke who challenged notions of authorship, authenticity, and objectivity. Drawing on images from modernist works that had become mainstream such as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-day dots — Polke, not unlike Marcel Duchamp, demanded to know what constituted originality in a world where copies have become prized and designer homogeneity had become a marker of status.