Sigmar Polke

Article excerpt

Artist whose work confronted Germany's post-war demons

In 1964 the German artist Gerhard Richter gave an interview to a critic called John Anthony Thwaites in which he made a number of surprising revelations; among them, that his pictures had been used to torture inmates in concentration camps and had, by their sheer power, killed off Joseph Stalin. As it turned out, the "interview" had been made up by Richter's younger rival and sometime collaborator, Sigmar Polke. It was, in various ways, typical of Polke, who has died of lung cancer at the age of 69.

Of the trio of painters - Polke, Richter and Anselm Kiefer - who came to dominate the art scene in Dsseldorf and Cologne in the 1960s, it was the first whose story was the most German. Polke was born at the height of the Second World War in what was then the German town of Oels, in Lower Silesia. The province had been annexed by Prussia a century earlier; under Hitler its Jewish population was decimated, many dying in the camp at nearby Oswiecim, then known as Auschwitz. In 1945, Silesia was annexed by the Soviets and Polke's family fled westward, first to Thuringia in East Germany and then, in 1953, to the Rhineland and the West. In their various exiles, they lost everything. If the jokes about Stalin and concentration camps in his spoof Richter interview seemed in poor taste, then no one risked greater offence than Sigmar Polke himself.

The so-called Thwaites interview was revelatory in other ways, too. In 1964, Polke was studying at the Dsseldorf Kunstakademie under that giant of post-war German art, Joseph Beuys. The recent spectre of National Socialism had left young Germans with a fear of demagoguery, yet the country's academic system, with its rigid hierarchies and cults of personality, still reeked of it. Beuys' way around this was to play Teutonism at its own game, embroidering the story of his wartime heroics and setting himself up as a felt- hatted Herr Professor. Only by aping German-ness could it be defused: in 1969 another Beuys student, Anselm Kiefer, had himself photographed in front of European monuments giving the Sieg Heil salute. Polke's Richter interview, too, spanned its own German myths, of national power and, more troublingly, of feigned national regret.

Although Polke would be best known as a painter, his student work was of its day in playing around with concepts and happenings. One early piece was a portable, cage-like structure called Potato House, its titular tubers topped up with each new showing. By the early 1960s, he and Richter, both refugees from East Germany, had invented a school of their own called Capitalist Realism, a name which cocked a snook at Soviet Socialist Realism while drawing heavily on American Pop Art. Unlike American Pop, though, Polke and Richter's concerned itself with the everyday and banal. Where artists such as Andy Warhol borrowed the language of advertising to hymn film stars and cans of Coke, Polke favoured subjects of an almost Magritte- like ordinariness. Socks were a favourite, as were plastic bowls, sausages and, predictably, potatoes.

His style rejected American consumerism even as it appeared to embrace it. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Polke's paintings and prints appropriated the comic-book Benday dots used by the American Pop painter Roy Lichtenstein. Where Lichtenstein's pixels were sharp- edged and picture perfect, though, Polke's - known, inevitably, as "Polke Dots" - were blobby and smudged. …