Sigmar Polke - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 17, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Video

    The Utopian Threshold in Sigmar Polke ‘Stadtbild II (City Painting II)’, 1968

    Curator Francesco Bonami and 20th Century & Contemporary Art Researcher Patrizia Koenig take a closer look at Sigmar Polke's 'Stadtbild II (City Painting II)' from 1968, where the artist provides a glimpse into the New York City of his imagination, having not yet travelled to the city itself. Existing at the threshold of a utopian versus dystopian interpretation, this painting belongs to Polke’s late 1960s pantheon of works depicting faraway places. Like his closest peer Gerhard Richter, Polke was both fascinated and critical of the United States, but embraced a formally diverse painterly aesthetic in the context of post-war West Germany.

  • Provenance

    Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich
    Dürckheim Collection (acquired from the above in the late 1970s)
    Sotheby's, London, June 29, 2011, lot 14
    David Zwirner Gallery, London
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich; Cologne, Josef-Haubrich-Kunsthalle Köln, Sigmar Polke, April 4 - May 13, 1984, no. 80, p. 75 (illustrated)
    London, Tate Modern; Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 - 2010, October 1, 2014 - July 5, 2015, no. 68, p. 264 (illustrated)

  • Literature

    Sigmar Polke: Bilder, Tücher, Objekte: Werkauswahl 1962 - 1971, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Tubingen, Tubingen, 1976, no. 132, p. 74 (illustrated)

    We are most grateful to Mr. Michael Trier, Artistic Director from the Estate of Sigmar Polke, for his expertise.

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I love all dots. I am married to many of them. I want all dots to be happy. Dots are my brothers. I am a dot myself.” – Sigmar Polke

    A remarkable work by Sigmar Polke that previously resided in the revered Dürckheim Collection, Stadtbild II, 1968, belongs to the artist’s great pantheon of paintings from the late 1960s that deal with the lure of the faraway and exotic. While related paintings such as Dschungel (Jungle), 1967, or Palmen (Palms), 1968, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, deal directly with the motif of the exotic, the present work and its sister painting Stadtbild I, 1969, Neue Galerie, Kassel, explore the aspirational promises of the utopian modern city. Taking the viewer on a fantastical journey into the artist’s imagination, in the present work Polke captures the New York City skyline – a sight the artist would not experience until his first trip in 1973 – at a moment of celebration, shimmering against a night-black ground.

    The freneticism of the city is captured in Polke’s immediate square-edged, white brushstrokes that demarcate the architectural skyline while undulating lines sweep diagonally across the lower third of the composition to convey an onward rush of traffic caught in a slow exposure photograph, or perhaps, the churning ripples of a waterfront. Squeezing, daubing and pushing paint across the surface, Polke relishes in the pure properties of his medium as he covers the composition with fireworks and his famous dots that enliven the scene like a glittering midnight ticker-tape parade. Thick lines of taxi-cab yellow paint squeezed directly from the tube adorn schematic outlines of the architecture, mimicking the radiating glow from building lights that give the city its reputation as “The City That Never Sleeps”. In his gestural arcs of paint, Polke assuredly brings forth the iconic and awe-inspiring forms of the Empire State and Chrysler Building.


    When Polke painted Stadtbild II, he had yet to set foot in New York City. It was a place that appealed to Polke and his circle both as an art metropolis and a model society unlike any other in post-war Germany or Europe for that matter. While Polke would visit the metropolis for the first time five years later, in 1968 he was a struggling artist having recently graduated from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the Rhineland. Some 20 years after the end of World War II, a deeply divided Germany had materialized – one that was divided along the lines of Capitalism and Communism. Polke’s family, who as German citizens had fled Silesia in 1945, first settled in Communist Eastern Germany and then escaped to the Rhineland when Polke was 12 years old. Growing up impoverished and later struggling to make ends meet as an artist, it is easy to see how West Germany's conspicuous lauding of its consumerist culture as a “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) was at once alluring as it was false in its fundamental break from the artist’s everyday reality.

    Stadtbild II shows Polke’s fascination with the visual images of modern reality, an interrogation that he began most pointedly some five years earlier whilst still a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. In 1963, Polke had joined forces with fellow students Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg and Manfred Kuettner to initiate the pseudo art movement “Capitalist Realism” as a deliberately ironic response to the state-approved “Socialist Realism” of the East and Pop Art's rootedness in a capitalist consumer society. These artists belonged to what is often referred to as the post-1945 “year zero” generation, witnessing how the initial promise of freedom was increasingly being replaced by the stifling order of the German middle class. They embraced the American preoccupation with media-derived imagery, but with an irony specific to their German existence. With a deep seated suspicion regarding the purported truth value of imagery circulating in newspapers and magazines at the time, both Polke and Richter pursued the potential of painting at a time when it was widely considered more or less redundant.

    Both unnerved and fascinated by the increasing disparity between reality and fiction of surface appearances, both Polke and Richter were fascinated by the middle-class desire for travel and leisure, painting motifs of palm trees, pyramids and other faraway places neither had been to. While Richter ambivalently engaged with the theme of the exotic faraway with the same method of the painterly “photo-blur”, Polke pursued a number of pictorial idioms to explore his interest in the “promises made and fantasies produced by the tourist industry and in how to represent and undercut stage escape as something that was being promoted while remaining unattainable” (Mark Godfrey, Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2013, p. 235). Where Richter’s images are detached and seemingly void of expression, Polke ups the ante.

    Against All Dogma

    Stadbild II takes us right into the heart of the utopian city dream as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of West German society. With a playful nod to the objects and textures found in petit-bourgeois living rooms in the 1960s, Polke to this end explored a varied pictorial spectrum in works relating to the exotic: from using a tropical Technicolor palette for raster paintings such as Dschungel, 1967, to employing decorative fabrics one might find in a middle class household for the pictorial ground of works such as Stadtbild I, or Palmen Auf Autostoff, 1969, or relishing in the faux-naïf joys of painting, as in the present painting.

    Stadtbild II is illustrative of Polke’s project of deflating not just the pretensions of the middle-class, but also the dogma of modernism in the late 1960s. With his characteristically trickster-like stance, Polke with Stadtbild IIambivalently alludes to New York City as the epicenter of the postwar art world, and the dogma of abstraction more broadly. Both Abstract Expressionism and the French semi-equivalent Art Informel had cast their spell on the German postwar art world, both seen as critical responses to the Nationalist Socialist Party’s ban on abstract art. Even though Polke had elected to study under abstract painters Gerhard Hoehme and K.O. Goetz at the Kunstakdemie Düsseldorf, he was nevertheless suspicious of the ways in which abstraction was being hailed as a universal language. Polke’s mocking resistance of all forms of convention led to the development of a constantly shifting, eclectic aesthetic that evaded any signature style.

    Rules and laws were things that were only there to be challenged: here Polke employs his full painterly repertoire to cover the monochrome white and black geometries of the picture with an exuberant explosion of color and line. The squeezed lines of yellow paint appear to poke fun at Jackson Pollock's drips, while the broad white brushstrokes at the upper right act like a vestige of gestural abstraction. By infusing the supposed “high art” realm with the “low brow” aesthetic of kitsch reminiscent of the “the moods used in bourgeois interiors to escape the monotony of normality,” Polke playfully subverts the conventions of modernism (Martin Hentschel, The Three Lies of Painting, Berlin, 1997, p. 46). And yet, as artist Peter Doig has pointed out, Polke “seemed to use an abstract element to create real atmosphere and mood in his paintings, not just to make comments on abstract paintings. It didn’t seem to be about the language of painting that existed…If imagery was added on top or behind, it always felt totally meant” (Peter Doig, quoted in Mark Godfrey, “Interview with Peter Doig”, Tate Etc., September 23, 2014, online).


    Enlisting familiar vocabularies of nostalgia and exoticism with an exaggerated exuberance, Polke constructs a hyperreal image. The New York we see here appears like the ultimate tourist postcard, a fabricated image that is even more striking if one compares its representation with the photographs Polke took on his first trip to New York City in 1973. Those photographs saw him focus on the urban decay of the city, rather than those gleaming vistas he visited in his expanded imagination in the late 1960s.

    As John Caudwell highlighted, “Polke adopted the most stylized of decorative conventions to more complex and serious uses. In the City Paintings…one is aware at first of the hackneyed, hyperactive image of a city at night, illuminated both by strips of electric lights along the contours of the buildings and by fireworks. After a moment, however, one realizes that an alternative reading of the paintings is possible: they are also a strikingly accurate rendering of the way a streetscape actually appears as if one has consumed hallucinogenic drugs” (John Caudwell, Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1990, p. 10).

    The themes of travel and fantasy that pervade Stadtbild II were already percolating in Polke’s oeuvre prior to the work’s creation vis-à-vis the genre of science fiction. This connection is not surprising if one considers that science fiction was closely tied to esoteric and metaphysical explorations of reality in the dawning psychedelic era in the 1960s. In contrast to more somber works referencing German cityscapes, such as Häuserfront (Front of the Housing Block), 1967, Polke was creating resplendent drawings and paintings of utopian cities that interestingly referenced the genre of science fiction. Already in 1966, Polke’s fascination with the idea of a space metropolis is evident in the raster painting Fliegende Untertassen (Flying Saucers), 1966, where grisaille multi-story buildings are being attacked by a UFO.

    The specific link to New York City is furthermore evidenced in a series of drawings, most notably Untitled (UFOs) from 1968. In this work a group of flying saucers hover above the New York City skyline, while below a group of ape-like figures, seemingly teleported from the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, ventures in this otherworldly territory. Stadtbild II presents us not only with a unique snapshot of Polke’s expanded imagination, but also of the larger cultural zeitgeist at the time– being created in the same year as sci-fi movies like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey captured the public’s imagination.


    In his imaginative ventures into the faraway places of both his and public imagination, Polke puts forth an illusory model of reality that space age science had shown to be unknowable and permanently in flux. Underpinning this fantastical city is, however, a latent sense of dystopia that exposes the unattainable aspirations of German citizens with the societal realities of the time. The juxtaposition of the vibrant fireworks with the more schematic outlines of the buildings in Stadtbild II suggest that things are not quite the way they present themselves to be on the surface. In this, it recalls the 1927 German film Metropolis, which centered on a prosperous futurist city where wealthy industrialists and business magnates reign from high-rise towers, while underground-dwelling workers toil endlessly operate the machines that power the city. The aptly titled “New Tower of Babel” and a Gothic cathedral form the heart of upper Metropolis, the aesthetic vision of which, according to director Fritz Lang, was inspired directly by his sight of New York skyscrapers. It appears only fitting that Polke would counter that vision with the even more dazzling, impressive New York skyscrapers that were built shortly after that film’s inception and come to stand as beacons of economic progress.

    The critique of industrial capitalism that underpins Metropolis resonates potently with Stadtbild II when one considers the work in context of the specific time and place of its creation. Executed in 1968, Stadtbild II marked the moment in which the cracks in West German surface appearances that Polke had already begun to interrogate were erupting. If the 1960s had begun on a hopeful note of prosperity, by the late 1960s West Germany was caught in a swinging door between present inflation and potential recession. 1968 was the year of the German Student Movement, among others a reaction against the perceived hypocrisy of the West German government. Simultaneously, the shock of realizing that the Wirtschaftswunder could not last forever led many, influenced by Marxist economic theory, to believe that the economic wealth of the nation would destroy the standard of living of the working class, and lead to an ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor.

    Of course, similar revolts were sweeping through the United States, but in the public consciousness of West Germans, New York City appeared to represent the model society par excellence. Polke, astute as ever, was critically aware of the smoke and mirrors of this image. As he recalled of his love-hate relationship with the political and economic power of the United States, “When I came to the West I saw many, many things for the first time. But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn’t really heaven” (Sigmar Polke, quoted in Martin Gayford, “A Weird Intelligence”, Modern Painters, Winter 2003, p. 78).

    It is within this seemingly naïve dream image of New York City that Polke provides an incisive commentary on the social promise of all that the modern American City represented to the citizens of Germany – “not primarily to sneer”, as A.S. Byatt has pointed out, “but to show nakedly those emotions to which they aspired…” (A.S. Byatt, “Polke Dots”, Tate, 1 October 2003, online). Yet ultimately, any attempt to ascribe singular meaning to Stadtbild II fails to coalesce in the constant flux of Polke’s cosmos. As Peter Schjeldahl noted, “To learn more and more about him, it has sometimes seemed to me, is to know less and less. His art is like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland rabbit hole, entrance to a realm of spiraling perplexities” (Peter Schjeldahl, "The Daemon and Sigmar Polke", Sigmar Polke, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1990-1991, p. 17).

Property from a Distinguished Private Collector


Stadtbild II (City Painting II)

signed and dated "S. Polke 68" on the reverse
dispersion on canvas
59 x 49 in. (149.9 x 124.5 cm.)
Painted in 1968.

$12,000,000 - 18,000,000 

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 May 2018