Artist Dossier: Sigmar Polke

When Sigmar Polke died last June at age 69, obituaries lauded him as one of the most important artists of his time, comparing him with Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol in the influence and breadth of his oeuvre. Like those artists, Polke incorporated elements from popular culture into his art, although with a decidedly more jaundiced eye. His prices have not caught up to his critical reputation, partly because of the diversity of his output, his famously irascible personality, and the fact that for most of his career he had no formal gallery representation. Moreover, with Polke’s heirs still organizing his estate and a comprehensive catalogue raisonné yet to be published, perspective on his full production remains incomplete.

Employing not only paint and canvas but also photography, drawings on photocopies, and printmaking, Polke was decidedly eclectic. He reveled in iconoclasm, contesting the sanctity of the picture plane, the figure — even painting itself — by reproducing found images and applying such unexpected materials as beeswax and grains of arsenic to the surface of his canvases. For his installation in the German Pavilion of the 1986 Venice Biennale, he used paints that changed color in response to fluctuating humidity levels. "He wasn’t afraid of failure or risk, so he was the most difficult to categorize and to market," says Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who, along with Jack Lane, of the Dallas Museum of Art, championed the artist in the U.S. in the 1990s.

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Polke was born in 1941 in the then-German city of Ols, now Polish Olesnica. Driven out during World War II, his family settled in Düsseldorf, and he entered the city’s famed Kunstakademie in 1961. In 1963 he secured a vacant butcher shop as a venue for a show of his own work and that of three classmates — Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg-Fischer, and Gerhard Richter — with whom he had studied under Karl Otto Götz. Although it is no longer known precisely which paintings Polke exhibited, at the time he, like Richter, was making so-called Capitalist Realist paintings, which satirized the innovations of American Pop, incorporating stock images of German petit bourgeois life that bordered on kitsch, such as strings of sausages.

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Throughout his career Polke’s work retained a trenchant irony. Catholic in his attitude toward the lingua franca of images, he incorporated in his art everything from gunslingers, flamingos, and pinup girls to the watchtowers and barbed-wire fencing of concentration camps. His interests encompassed science and pseudoscience (particularly alchemy), history, politics, fairy tales, and pop culture. Rarely did he tackle politics overtly, but his magpie use of layered images produced canvases that defy easy comprehension and so provide a kind of visual analogue to the complex situation of postwar Germany.

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The relationship between representation and reality emerged as a unifying concern in the 1960s, when he introduced into his paintings and drawings on fabric and canvas the raster, or benday, dots employed to produce halftone screens in reprographic printing. He began by stamping the dots freehand and using a magnifying glass to count them, later switching to a spray gun and a slide projector. Polke was acquainted with the work of American artist Roy Lichtenstein, who also famously employed the dots, but his own approach, which sometimes altered the source image, resulted in more ambiguous, unsettling pictures.

Polke earned his first solo show, at Galerie René Block, in West Berlin, in 1966; four years later, he exhibited at Galerie Michael Werner, in Cologne. These mid 1960s works remain the artist’s most recognizable and have performed the best at auction. His auction record is held by "Strand," a 1966 black-and-white dot canvas depicting a crowded beach, which in February 2007 at Christie’s London vaulted its high estimate of £1.2 million ($2.4 million) to make £2,708,000 ($5.3 million). At the same house last fall "Das Paar" ("The Couple"), a 1965 color example, achieved £769,250 ($1.2 million) against a high estimate of £450,000 ($712,000).

Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s international cohead of postwar and contemporary art, attributes these prices to the rarity of these "Rasterbilder" on the market: "There weren’t many of them to begin with, and many are in museum collections or in the kind of private collections where you have to wait for them to become estates — long-term collectors who bought Polke early and don’t sell for the sake of selling."

In the 1970s, Polke turned to photography, making blurred hand- colored prints that reproduce found images. A few outstanding examples, such as a 1975 series of 10 photographs of a gay bar in São Paulo, which sold at Christie’s London in February 2006 for £568,000 ($988,000), have approached the sums achieved for his paintings, but early photo-based works from the 1960s can still be had for $80,000 to $150,000.

Polke’s reputation remains most closely tied to his paintings. In addition to the 1960s, Cappellazzo says that two periods have excited most interest at auction and privately: 1983-85, when his works became more colorful; and the early 2000s, when his paintings expanded dramatically in scale. "He was making some of the best work of his career during those times," she says, and their prices reflect that: The 1983 painting "Opiumraucher" ("Opium Smoker") fetched $962,500 at Sotheby’s New York in November 2009; it had sold for just $244,500 in the house’s November 1995 sale.

By comparison, a Richter can fetch in the tens of millions. The large gap has several explanations. Although both artists are known for their heterodoxy, Polke chose not to play the game of the American market. Over the decades, Polke had shows with such dealers as Anthony d’Offay, in London, and, in New York, with Marian Goodman and Holly Solomon, who in 1982 presented the artist’s first solo show in Manhattan. He hedged, however, on official representation until the 1990s, when he went with Gordon VeneKlasen, at Michael Werner. And although Polke figures in major international museum collections, no institution has mounted an exhibition that unifies and explains his work. The most comprehensive overview was in 1997, at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, in Bonn, but Polke worked prodigiously in the last two decades of his life, producing enough material for the 2003 show "History of Everything" — new works featuring cowboys and U.S. Army surveillance photos behind a scrim of dots — which originated at the Dallas Museum of Art and traveled to Tate Modern, in London. A complete retrospective is considered by many to be overdue.

Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art for Sotheby’s, believes Polke’s price lag is due in part to the lack of a catalogue raisonné, which would create a solid basis for a secondary market. "There is no reason why a great Polke from the 1960s isn’t worth as much as a great Richter from the ’60s," says Meyer. "Once an illustrated catalogue raisonné comes out, the market for Polke will change dramatically. You will have a body of work that is assessable and accessible. You will see market activity increase dramatically, and you will see a dramatic increase at auction. I have told clients of mine, ‘Buy Polke because he is underpriced at the moment.’"

The New York dealer Fergus McCaffrey agrees with Meyer’s appraisal. McCaffrey, who recently sold the pinup painting "B-Mode," 1987 — once owned by the German collector Frieder Burda — to the American collector Mitchell Rales for a price he puts at several million dollars, says that Polke’s death "taught us three things about his market: how little work is available; that if you can get your hands on a great piece, you pay for it; and that his work, relative to his contemporaries’, is undervalued."

Major changes could be coming. Polke amassed a number of his own pictures, and his estate, headquartered in Germany and led by his widow, Augustina von Nagel, daughter Anna Polke, and son Georg Polke, has not yet made clear how or if his holdings will become available. VeneKlasen expects Polke’s market to grow over the next decade as understanding of his practice increases and his impact on a later generation of painters like David Salle, Neo Rauch, and Carroll Dunham becomes clear. His legacy is "a braveness, a willingness to explore complicated territory," says VeneKlasen. "You could liken it to outer-space exploration when everyone else is exploring the surface of the planet."

"Artist Dossier: Sigmar Polke" originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's May 2011 Table of Contents.