Lot Essay Executed in 1994, Untitled is an exquisite work on paper that demonstrates Sigmar Polke’s renewed engagement with his signature raster-dot motif. First employed during the 1960s, these hand-painted dots sought to ape the mechanics of commercial printing, drawing attention to the artificial nature of mass-produced imagery. Initially, Polke had used this technique to mock the flourishing of bourgeois society in the wake of the West German economic miracle, employing subjects that reflected the hollow rise of consumerism. During the 1990s – as the country transformed yet again following the demolition of the Berlin Wall – Polke returned to many of these themes. Here, the artist depicts a women with a shopping trolley, passing before a row of vacant windows. Splashes of vibrant colour cut across the picture plane, evoking his experiments with volatile chemical substances during the intervening decades. Flickering like a static television screen, the work captures Polke’s enduring desire to expose the unstable nature of reality, and the systems through which we seek to represent it.
During the 1960s, Polke’s fascination with the aesthetics of mass-produced imagery aligned his work with that of Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, who similarly appropriated the Benday dot system in his comic strip paintings. Unlike Lichtenstein’s dots, however, which were pristinely and crisply rendered, Polke used a pencil eraser to hand-daub his paint, allowing for a smudging, streaking and diffusion of colour. His dots purposefully vary in scale and tone, calling into question the veracity of the image itself. Though alluding to the perceived authenticity of newspapers and other printed sources, they ultimately betray their own illusory nature. The looser appearance of the dots both here and in other works of the 1990s may be seen in the context of Polke’s Druckfehler (Printing Mistake) series, in which he experimented with enlarging and manipulating printing errors found in newspapers. The thin washes of coloured pigment add a further layer of distortion, conjuring the illusion of multiple entwined planes.
Polke’s scepticism towards bourgeois culture may be traced to his youth. Born in East Germany, the artist was twelve years old when he escaped to West Berlin in 1953. His early upbringing under Communist rule fuelled him with a wry, politicised detachment, further intensified by the consumer-oriented culture he faced in the West. Upon enrollment into the Dusseldorf Art Academy, he befriended fellow student Gerhard Richter, with whom he founded the ‘Capitalist Realist’ movement: a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the Socialist Realist paintings promoted by the Communist State. Polke’s cynicism towards consumerist imagery, and indeed its modes of transmission, would remain a guiding force in his practice. This stance finds potent expression in the present work: a banal image of everyday life, unmoored from all sense of fixed reality.