Sigmar Polke’s Roter Fisch sells for $4,141,558 @Sotheby’s in London

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Completed on an epic scale, Roter Fisch (Red Fish) is a fascinating example of Sigmar Polke’s eclectic style and an apt demonstration of his engagement with the tension between abstraction and figuration. In its appropriation of an isolated passage from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1557 drawing Invidia, it can be understood as one of the most compelling examples from a series of paintings that Polke made in the 1990s which are distinctive for their appropriation of motifs from pre-modern art history. It is also one of the most painterly works that Polke made using industrially produced fabric. In their production, he poured and splashed paint over the regulated patterns of the manufactured materials in a way that deliberately disrupted and subverted their geometry and rationality. Thus, in the present work, the homogeny of gingham is usurped by vast tendrils of opaque white and passages of incongruent raster-dot imagery. It is an engaging composition that has featured in prestigious museum exhibitions, and should be considered as one of the most important paintings from this phase of Polke’s oeuvre.

By the 1990s, Polke’s work had gained a new vitality and pictorial dynamism akin to the radical brilliance of his 1960s paintings. Having given up painting for most of the 1970s in favour of experimenting with other media such as photography and film, he returned to painterly practice with renewed energy in the 1980s and 1990s. Art historian Sean Rainbird commented on these machinations shortly after the present work’s execution: “Polke appears now to delegate ever more processes in his painting, while remaining in ultimate control. His motifs are usually found within the history of art and illustration… They are often readable only as fragments depicting human agency, against the increasingly unstructured grounds on which he has limited the autograph mark by allowing the liquids he applies to find their own final shape” (Sean Rainbird, ‘Seams and Appearances: learning to paint with Sigmar Polke’, in: Exh. Cat., Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Sigmar Polke, Join the Dots, 1995, p. 22).

Constant throughout these variations in Polke’s artistic methodology is a dedicated interest in the formal and theoretical elements that differentiate abstraction from figuration. While initially this fascination was made manifest through the artist’s appropriation of cultural images, in the late 1980s and early 1990s Polke reversed this approach, suggesting the figurative in the abstract through a sustained enquiry into the reactive possibilities of diverse materials and colour. Roter Fischexemplifies this thrilling tension between representative and non-representative art forms; the gestural tendrils of white paint counteract the sharply delineated silhouette in the lower left hand corner, which appears to approximate the fish motif heralded in the title. Furthermore, within this form, Polke has appropriated passages of medieval imagery which are cropped, rotated, and re-printed in idiosyncratic raster dots and a bold primary palette so that the depicted scene is increasingly difficult to read. The overall effect is beguiling, and imparts a remarkable amalgam of image, colour, and form, which reveals the astonishing assurance of this artist’s mature technique.

This cropped and appropriated imagery is taken from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s drawing entitled Invidia, which belongs to a series devoted to The Seven Deadly Sins that were created in 1557, that was then used as a source for an engraving by Pieter van der Hyden. Its appearance here should not be read as any attempt from Polke to impart a similar meaning to the present canvas, but does identify Roter Fisch within a wider tranche of Polke’s contemporaneous oeuvre, in which he reproduced shreds of art history using a Benday (raster-dot) printing method. The artist had first appropriated this patterned means of reproducing images during the 1960s when it was the only available means of mass-producing images in commercial printing. However, unlike the glossy machine-like production of Roy Lichtenstein, who used a similar pattern to create tightly composed comic-style pictures, Polke manipulated the shape and scale of the dots by distorting the matrix so as to erode the source image into a ghostly blur. His pictures are subsequently more comparable to Gerhard Richter’s fêted Photo-Paintingsin their deployment of blurred preclusive semi-figurative forms. Observed from up close, these obscure motifs seem fragmentary and disjunctive, only partially coalescing in the mind’s eye to form a unified image. In magnifying the scale of the raster-dots through their transfer onto canvas, Polke deconstructed the mechanically reproduced Benday pattern to the point of abstraction, breaking down the aesthetic and physical structure of the source image so that it verges on collapse. By subtly corroding the cohesiveness and integrity of his source image in this way, Polke posed important questions about the nature of image-making, of perception, and of reality. These raster-dots were hugely important to Polke, and rife with interpretative meaning: “I like the way that the dots in a magnified picture swim and move about. The way that motifs change from recognisable to unrecognisable, the undecided ambiguous nature of the situation, the way it remains open… Many dots vibrating, swinging, blurring, reappearing: one could think of radio signals, telegraphic images, television come to mind” (Sigmar Polke cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke: Alibis, 2014, p. 74).

Polke produced work of astonishing diversity and versatility throughout his career, forging a painterly language that was utterly unique in its embrace of innovative artistic forms and ideas. His works teasingly defy categorisation, eluding association with conventional art historical movements in favour of an extraordinarily eclectic stylistic language. Transcending the boundaries of traditional painting, Polke moved into fascinatingly unpredictable dominions of creative experimentation, whilst imbuing his works with a sense of subtle satire and humour. Polke challenges us to unravel the riddles he presents on canvas, yet does so in a way that ultimately leaves interpretation a matter of personal opinion. Peter Schjeldahl comments on the enigmatic nature of Polke’s oeuvre: “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 spiralling perplexities…” (Peter Schjeldhal, ‘The Daemon and Sigmar Polke’, in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sigmar Polke, 1990 -91, p. 17). The present work is similarly multi-faceted; it demonstrates Sigmar Polke’s disruptive painterly style, exemplifies his vast artistic ambition, and distils his astounding ability to hover between abstract and figurative modes of depiction.

 

Art After Art After Art After Art…