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  • 'Many of Polke’s friends recall his unusual ability to see through the deceit, subterfuge, and artifice of polite society, to penetrate the trivialities of the status quo in order to make visible its unstable values.' —Kathy Halbreich

    Bold and confrontational, the present work by celebrated German post-war artist Sigmar Polke is, as Ekow Eshun’s insightful essay suggests, a work of multiple and ambiguous meanings. Infused with characteristic irony and managed with incredible economy, it is an important early example of the artist’s innovative Stoffbilder works – one of the few, along with the amusing Polke als Astronaut selected by the artist for inclusion in his first retrospective installed at the Kunsthalle Tübingen in 1976 before travelling to Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and the Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum Endhoven. Combining commercially produced fabrics and painterly gesture in provocative new arrangements, Polke embarked upon the Stoffbilder series in 1964 with works like Das Palmen-Bild. Directly challenging the conventions of painting in replacing the blank canvas with mass-produced printed fabric in this manner, these works allowed the artist to address more complex questions related to the legacies of early 20th century European art and post-war German culture with perspicacious humour and wit. 

     

    Acquired in 1974 by the present owner, this painting is one of the last works from this early and much coveted Stoffbilder series to come to market, its vitality and subtle complexity marking it out as a truly exceptional piece. Previously on a long-term loan to the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the present work has an exceptional exhibition history, included in both the 1976 mid-career retrospective, and in the highly anticipated Alibi’s: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Tate Modern, London in 2014.

     

    Sigmar Polke, Polke als Astronaut (Polke as Astronaut), 1968, promised gift of a private collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / DACS 2021
    Sigmar Polke, Wolkenkratzer, 1968, Museumlandschaft Hessen Kassel – Neue Galerie, Kassel© The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / DACS 2021

    Humour, High Culture, and Kitsch

    'Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture […] operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.' —Clement Greenberg

    While it might initially appear that the compact African sculpture of the title is the primary subject of the present work, it is in fact the relationships between its constitutive parts that takes precedence. Dominated by the yellow fabric featuring a kitsch pattern of woodland animals, two stepped geometric lines traverse the composition, abruptly cut off by a wide, vertical band of red edged with a thin strip of Leukoplast medical tape. Typical of Polke’s irreverent humour and stylistic approach, in the present work we can clearly see the extent to which he ‘brushed up against Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism, only to lift their moves and mock them.’i Playing with dominant artistic vocabularies of the time, the stepped lines cleverly evoke the purified forms of Minimalism, while the thin, looping threads of blue, green, and red paint dribbled across this taped section immediately recall Jackson Pollock’s ‘Abstract-Expressionist squiggles.’ii 

     

    Executed in the same year as the present work, Polke’s Andre in Delft exemplifies this parodic approach, applying an unaltered Delft Blue fabric in a playful critique of Carl Andre’s Minimalist floor assemblages. Similarly, the witty Höhere Wesen Befahlen from the following year draws on the earnestness of Kazimir Malevich’s escape into abstraction, further contextualising the present work as belonging firmly within what Waldemar Januszczak has aptly described as Polke’s ‘hilarious epoch of tirades.’iii      

     

    Sigmar Polke, Carl Andre in Delft, 1968, Speck Collection, Cologne© The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / DACS 2021
    Sigmar Polke, Hohere Wesen Befahlen, 1969, on loan to the Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg Bridgeman Images © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / DACS 2021

    Bringing the material of the petit-bourgeois German home very literally into the work here Polke goes a step further in his assessment of the great lineage of art history, playfully positing a direct relation between high art and kitschy middle-class consumption. The conceptual and thematic keystones of the work what, then, might the centralised African sculpture have to do with these apparently disparate elements?

     

    Capitalist Realism and Exotic Consumerism

     

    Executed in 1968, the present work is supremely representative of this richly inventive and productive period of the artist’s career, evolving out of the ‘Capitalist Realism’ movement he developed with the likes of Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg and Manfred Kuettner during their time as students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the early 1960s. A deliberately ironic response to state-sponsored idealisation of the people and their leaders that fed into Social Realism on the one hand, and the encroaching hegemony of American abstraction which did not seem to deal in any meaningful way with people or history on the other, Capitalist Realism provided Polke with a means of responding to Pop’s preoccupation with a media-driven and commodity-saturated visual culture with an irony and critical distance specific to the German postwar experience. 

     

    Featuring an array of palm trees, exotic cityscapes and far-away sunsets Polke’s work from the late 1960s took a wry look at postwar ‘exotic consumerism’: a middle-class desire for travel, leisure and escapism; aspirations well beyond the means of most Germans in the decades immediately following the end of the war. While works like Das Palmen-Bild deal directly with the sociopolitical concerns of orientalism and the commodification of a European idea of an exotic ‘faraway’, something more complex is at play in the present work. 

     

    On a formal level, the African sculpture in the centre of the work mediates between the domestic interior of the German petit-bourgeois home and the representation of high art in the satirised Ab-Ex panel and Minimalist stepped lines. However, if we consider the popular appropriation of African art by the European middle classes by the middle of the century as the supreme expression of a low-brow sensibility, then this formal relationship is also reconstituted as a thematic one. Before the middle-class rage for African sculpture that made the objects ubiquitous in German homes by the late 1960s, they had been coveted and avidly collected by the great artists of the early 20th century European avant-garde.

     

    Carl Einstein and European Primitivism

     

    Pablo Picasso in his workshop in Montmartre in Paris, Summer 1908 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021 / PVDE / Bridgeman Images© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021 / PVDE / Bridgeman Images

    ​Although its title is awkwardly dated to contemporary ears in the language that it uses to describe the small, carved figure, this can be sensitively contextualised as a reference to German art critic Carl Einstein’s seminal 1915 book of the same title. The most well-known and reproduced of Einstein’s works, the monograph represents a foundational text of early 20th century German art criticism by one of the leading early interpreters of African art, Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. The first book in any language to take African art as its subject, Negerplastik established the terminology used by German-speaking critics to explain Cubism’s relationship to so-called ‘Primitive’ Art looted from European colonies in Africa and Oceania. 
     

    Plate from Carl Einstein’s monograph showing an unrecorded sculptural artefact
    Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child, 1907, Musée National Picasso, Paris © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021 / Bridgeman Images

    Adopting Einstein’s famous title and the frontal presentation of the objects favoured by the book, Polke also apes the author’s utopian and ‘radical remapping of the history of art forms.’iv Bringing motifs associated with Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and the geometry of Minimalism into such close proximity with characteristic ironic distance, Polke’s ‘impersonal technique amplifies the images caustic undercurrents: which, if any, of our three notions of elemental expression were ever valid?’v 

     

    Cubism and Abstract Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936, private collection 
    Sigmar Polke, Moderne Kunst (Modern Art), 1968, on loan to the Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg Bridgeman Images © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / DACS 2021 

    Brining representatives of the history of 20th century art together in this way Polke satirises Alfred Barr’s famous schematic ‘map’ of 20th century art produced in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art’s epoch-defining 1936 exhibition Cubism and Modern Art, which drew a straight line from African sculpture through Cubism to Constructivism and Abstract Art. Musing on the legacies of the early 20th century avant-garde, the present work sits comfortably alongside the more abstract Moderne Kunst from the same year. Suggestively drawing attention to the complicity of Cubism and early 20th century avant-garde movements such as German Expressionism to imperialist and colonial projects, however, this painting goes further, drawing back the veil of detached contemplation and individualism associated with modes of abstraction to highlight the bad faith involved in such formulations.

     

    The Lexicon of Sigmar Polke: Ekow Eshun explores the deeper meaning of Sigmar Polke's work against the backdrop of post-war art and Modernism's embrace of African art.

     

    Collector’s Digest

     

    •    A defining figure of post-war German art, Sigmar Polke’s practice was restlessly inventive and innovative, pushing boundaries on both material and conceptual levels.

     

    •    Coming to auction for the first time since it was purchased in 1974, this painting is the last remaining work from the highly important Stoffbilder series to be presented to the market. Showcasing Polke’s humour and ironic approach to consumerism, the present work is also a striking example of what the artist termed ‘Capitalist Realism’.

     

    •    The subject of major solo exhibitions at Tate Modern, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art amongst others, Polke’s works are now housed in the permanent collections of major international institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Städel Museum, Frankfurt; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

     

    Tate curator Mark Godfrey discusses Sigmar Polke’s work and artistic legacy ahead of his 2014 retrospective Sigmar Polke: Alibis 1963-2010  


    i Holland Cotter, ‘Sigmar Polke: Found Everything, Tried Everything, All His Own Way’, New York Times, 18 April 2014
    ii John Goodrich, ‘The Provincialism of Sigmar Poke’, Hyperallergic, 2 July 2014, online 
    iii Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Just Dotty About Polke’, 13 October 2014, online 
    iv Luie Mahler and Charles Haxthausen, ‘A Mythology of Forms: A Conversation about Carl Einstein, Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2019, online 
    v John Goodrich, ‘The Provincialism of Sigmar Poke’, Hyperallergic, 2 July 2014, online 

    • Provenance

      Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Cologne
      Onnasch Galerie, Cologne
      Private Collection, Germany (acquired in November 1974)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Kunsthalle Tübingen; Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum Endhoven, Sigmar Polke: Bilder Tücher Objekte, Werkauswahl 1962-1971, 14 February - 25 July 1976, no. 109, p. 158 (illustrated, p. 74)
      Kunstmuseum Bonn (long term loan circa 1990 - 2021)
      New York, The Museum of Modern Art; London, Tate Modern; Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Sigmar Polke: Alibis 1963-2010, 19 April 2014 - 5 July 2015, no. 80, p. 122 (illustrated, p. 266)
      Staatgalerie Stuttgart; Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Baselitz Richter Polke Kiefer, 12 April 2019 - 5 January 2020, p. 216 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Kea Wienand, Nach dem Primitivismus? Künstlerische Verhandlungen kultureller Differenz in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Eine postkoloniale Relektüre, 1960-1990, Bielefeld, 2015, no. ABB. 57, pp. 203, 205-208, 210-221 (illustrated, p. 204; illustrated on the front cover)

17

Negerplastik

signed and dated 'S. Polke 68' on the stretcher
dispersion paint and Leukoplast medical tape on patterned fabric
130.3 x 110.5 cm (51 1/4 x 43 1/2 in.)
Executed in 1968.

We are grateful to Michael Trier for the information he has kindly provided.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for £3,047,500

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741
[email protected]

 

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021