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Ohne Titel (Porträtist)
£700,000 - 1,000,000 ♠
sold for £1,085,000
Galerie Hajo Müller, Cologne
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 1987)
Sotheby's, London, 10 February 2015, lot 40
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
London, Tate Gallery; Staatsgalerie Stuttgart; Deichtorhallen Hamburg, The Froehlich Foundation. German and American Art from Beuys and Warhol, 1996 - 97, no. 225, p. 117 (illustrated)
Liverpool, Tate Gallery, Contemporary German and American Art from the Froehlich Collection, 5 June - 20 August 1999
Karlsruhe, Museum für Neue Kunst, Sigmar Polke: Werke aus der Sammlung Froehlich, 17 September 2000 - 11 February 2001, pp. 102-103, no. 64 (illustrated)
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda; Vienna, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Wien, Polke: eine Retrospektive, 3 February - 13 May 2007, no. 146, pp. 200-201 (illustrated)
With its kaleidoscopic composition filled with images seemingly taken from comic strips, shown against a vigorously-painted backdrop, Ohne Titel (Porträtist) plunges the viewer into the provocative universe of Sigmar Polke. This work on paper was created in 1979 and comprises a number of narrative layers upon a painterly backdrop. It is a tribute to its importance that Ohne Titel (Porträtist) was shown in a number of exhibitions, not least in Polke’s own lifetime. In 2004, Ohne Titel (Porträtist) was on loan to the Museum für Neue Kunst im ZKM, Karlsruhe. Both stylistically and thematically, Ohne Titel (Porträtist) resembles an earlier series of ten large works on paper entitled We Petty Bourgeois! that were created between 1974 and 1976, and which were exhibited to acclaim in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2009.
Polke created Ohne Titel (Porträtist) at an important juncture in his life and career. During the 1970s, when he had created We Petty Bourgeois!, he had largely been based at a farm called Gaspelshof, in Willich in the Lower Rhine. From there, he sallied forth, either on wide-ranging international travel to places as far-flung as Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea, or to Hamburg, where in 1977 he was made a professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst. In 1978, the year before he made Ohne Titel (Porträtist), Polke moved to Cologne, but the legacy of those earlier years was crucial. For during his time at Gaspelshof, he had lived in a near-commune atmosphere, alongside a number of other friends, family members and artists. Both on his travels and at home, he had experimented widely with drugs, not least hallucinogens such as LSD and magic mushrooms. All this had an impact on the anarchic logic that fuelled his collage-like pictures from the period, not least Ohne Titel (Porträtist).
Perhaps reflecting both his use of hallucinogens and also his experimentations with double exposure in photography, while also taking up the DADA mantle of collage, Ohne Titel (Porträtist) presents the viewer with a disconcerting palimpsest of imagery. Narrative is superimposed upon narrative: firstly, and almost least perceptibly, the red face of the woman is shown staring out of the picture, her chin leaning on her hand. Next are the black, print-like images of a woman with scissors, looking aghast, on the right; on the left, a scantily-dressed woman, perhaps the same, is shown holding scissors next to another sleeping female figure. Meanwhile, the largest and most dominant imagery is in blue: a male artist, shown from behind, painting a portrait that appears to have nothing to do with its sitter, a concerned-looking woman. Is she a victim describing her assailant to a police artist? With the pot of brushes and other accoutrements by his side, the viewer suspects that this is more of a painter than a police artist. Meanwhile, the image emerging on his sheet of paper looks as though it may be a man, and indeed perhaps even be a self-portrait. Meanwhile, a mysterious, spectral figure painted largely with vigorous blue brushstrokes rather than the precise, print-like illustration of the rest of the scene, holds out inventories of eye types and hairstyles for the artist’s perusal.
With what appears to be a police badge on his head, this near-formless character, with holes that act as eyes and a mouth, may be one of the ‘Higher Beings’ introduced in Polke’s works in the 1960s. These ‘Higher Beings’, according to Polke, served as a sort of anti-muse. According to Polke’s deliberately dubious testimony, they would supposedly command him to paint images of, say, flamingos. In a key painting from 1969, the formal composition comprised a black triangle in the upper-right-hand corner. The title of this work was simply: Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black! In Ohne Titel (Porträtist), Polke is probing the entire nature of artistic inspiration and content, with this shapeless authority directing the painter-within-the-picture to produce an image that is nothing to do with the image of the thoughtful, even concerned woman in front of him. This notion of painting on demand, or by command, satirises both the high-faluting ideas and rhetoric of artists seeking to explore and illustrate the grandiose and existential themes of life, the universe and everything, and also the political regimes that sponsored—or censored—artistic styles. This, in the age of a divided Germany and the Cold War, was still a very live concern.
The idea of a man looking at a woman but nevertheless creating the image of a man is a withering attack on the vanity of the male gaze. Even the other major layers of the picture, with the head in red or the figures in black, hint at its endemic nature in art and popular culture alike. The woman with scissors to the left is shown in a negligee; the female figure next to her is sleeping, hinting at some intimacy, or invasion of intimacy. Is this a female collagist or someone coming to take a lock of hair? The scene is deliberately unresolved—even with the juxtaposition of the shocked expression of the woman on the right. During the 1970s, Polke’s work—and indeed his life at Gaspelshof—increasingly skewered notions of gender roles, and he worked alongside a number of feminist artists and activists. These themes were tackled in a number of the works in his earlier series, We Petty Bourgeois!, as well as in pictures such as Untitled (Preventive Detention), also from 1979 and now in the Musée d’Art in Toulon. In that work, two policemen are grabbing a woman dressed in jeans and a shirt, holding her back, as though preventing her from escaping the confines of the picture plane, while she is shown looking out directly at the viewer. This was an overt image of the phallocracy at work. Similarly,Ohne Titel (Porträtist) shows numerous female figures and only one unambiguous man, provocatively highlighting and undermining that same centrality of the male gaze.
The assemblage of seemingly-appropriated comic book imagery in Ohne Titel (Porträtist) recalls the Pop Art of the 1960s, be it that espoused by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein or the darker, more cynical works of Polke himself and his contemporary, Gerhard Richter. The layering of the images appears to invoke both the Surreal legacy of Francis Picabia and to anticipate the transparent paintings on lacquered silk that Polke would pioneer in the 1980s. In both the case of Ohne Titel (Porträtist) and those later see-through pictures, there is a sense of multiplicity to the shifting subject matter on display. At the same time, the notion of seeing through these layers of imagery has been seen as a call-back to Polke’s own early training as a stained glass artist. The plurality of a picture such as Ohne Titel (Porträtist) is vital: it introduces ambiguity. Emblazoned across one of the pictures from We Petty Bourgeois! was a question that is valid in all of Polke’s works, not least Ohne Titel (Porträtist): ‘Can you always believe your eyes?’
The plurality of image, of author and of meaning in Ohne Titel (Porträtist) probes the entire notion of the artist. This is only too apt for Polke who, alongside Richter in the days of the ‘Capitalist Realism’ movement they had pioneered, sat in a shop window, themselves becoming both artist and artwork, themselves on display. This was early evidence of a concern that remained central to Polke, perceptible here in the exploration of the flawed portraitist at work. In 1975, in an interview with his then-partner Katharina Steffen, Polke himself had asked a string of absurd yet pointed questions that themselves resonate with Ohne Titel (Porträtist): ‘Who is the artist? Where is the artist? Above all, how wide is the artist’s stance on the pedestal today?’ (Sigmar Polke, quoted in Bice Curiger, ‘Sigmar Polke’s Laughter Cannot Be Killed’, 1973, pp. 207-13).
Ohne Titel (Porträtist)
£700,000 - 1,000,000 ♠
sold for £1,085,000
London Auction 29 June 2017