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Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke

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Sigmar Polke (13 February 1941 – 10 June 2010) was a German painter and photographer.

Polke experimented with a wide range of styles, subject matters and materials. In the 1970s, he concentrated on photography, returning to paint in the 1980s, when he produced abstract works created by chance through chemical reactions between paint and other products. In the last 20 years of his life, he produced paintings focused on historical events and perceptions of them.

Polke, the seventh in a family of eight children, was born in Oels in Lower Silesia. He fled with his family to Thuringia in 1945, during the expulsion of Germans after World War II. His family escaped from the Communist regime in East Germany in 1953, traveling first to West Berlin and then to West Germany Rhineland.

Upon his arrival in West Germany, in Willich near Krefeld, Polke began to spend time in galleries and museums and worked as an apprentice in a stained glass factory in Düsseldorf between 1959 and 1960, before entering the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Arts Academy) at age twenty. From 1961 to 1967 he studied at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy under Karl Otto Götz, Gerhard Hoehme and deeply influenced by his teacher Joseph Beuys. He began his creative output during a time of enormous social, cultural, and artistic changes in Germany and elsewhere. During the 1960s, Düsseldorf, in particular, was a prosperous, commercial city and an important centre of artistic activity. In the early 1970s Polke lived at the Gaspelhof, an artists' commune.

From 1977–1991, he was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Hamburg. His students included, among others, Georg Herold. He settled in Cologne in 1978, where he continued to live and work until his death in June 2010 after a long battle with cancer.

In 1963, Polke founded the painting movement "Kapitalistischer Realismus" ("Capitalist realism") with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Fischer (alias Konrad Lueg as artist). It is an anti-style of art, appropriating the pictorial shorthand of advertising. This title also referred to the realist style of art known as "Socialist Realism", then the official art doctrine of the Soviet Union and its satellites (from one which he had fled with his family), but it also commented upon the consumer-driven art "doctrine" of western capitalism. He also participated in "Demonstrative Ausstellung", a store-front exhibition in Düsseldorf with Manfred Kuttner, Lueg, and Richter. Essentially a self-taught photographer, Polke spent the next three years painting, experimenting with filmmaking and performance art.

In 1966-68, during his most conceptual period, Polke used a Rollei camera to capture ephemeral arrangements of objects in his home and studio. In 1968, the year after he left the art academy, Polke published these images as a portfolio of 14 photographs of small sculptures he had made from odds and ends—buttons, balloons, a glove. From 1968 to 1971, he completed several films and took thousands of photographs, most of which he could not afford to print.

During the 1970s, Polke slowed his art production in favor of travel to Afghanistan, Brazil, France, Pakistan, and the U.S., where he shot photographs (using a handheld 35mm Leica camera) and film footage that he would incorporate in his subsequent works during the 1980s. In 1973 he visited the U.S. with artist James Lee Byars in search of the "other" America; the fruit of that journey was a series of manipulated images of homeless alcoholics living on New York's Bowery. He produced an additional series of photographic suites based on his journeys to Paris (1971), Afghanistan and Pakistan (1974) and São Paulo (1975), often treating the original image as raw material to be manipulated in the dark room, or in the artist's studio. Beginning with his 1971 Paris photographs printed using chemical staining to create works full of strange presences while under the influence of LSD, Polke exploited the photographic process as a means to alter "reality." He combined both negatives and positives with images that had both vertical and horizontal orientations. The resulting collage-like compositions take advantage of under- and overexposure and negative and positive printing to create enigmatic narratives. With the negative in his enlarger, the artist developed large sheets selectively, pouring on photographic solutions and repeatedly creasing and folding the wet paper.

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