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The Art of Sigmar Polke – Review

Sigmar Polke review, Stuart Bush, contemporary art

Sigmar Polke tears everything down that came before and starts again

It is a common misunderstanding to think that creativity is an optimistic response to life and its single aim is to reflect the beauty around us.  However, if you born in Germany in 1941 in the middle of the Second World War, would you want to paint an attractive still life with flowers?  Everything is a function of where you think you belong, and everything comes back to your identity.  If you had an urge to create an artistic response while growing up on malevolent soil in a world full of angst, would you use the potatoes of your youth? It is hard to imagine not wanting to throw the rule book out, tear down everything that came before and start again. Sigmar Polke puts his value into laughter and what is at hazard.


Sigmar Polke was born in East Germany, his life was beyond impoverished.  He fled with his family from East to West Germany aged thirteen. Polke went from a world of complete scepticism to a world of consumer goods and hyper-capitalism.  It was certainly a revelation to his young mind.  Nevertheless, it is not surprising that his boyish outlook stayed with him while the seductive powers of consumerism bounced off the sides of his potato house.


As I walked around the intimate exhibition of Sigmar Polke’s work, it was a window into the mind of the artist, painter, filmmaker, sculptor, performance and installation artist that defies categories.  He clearly had a sharp and promiscuous intelligence. Later in this life, he was known to own over 40,000 books in the library. This enabled him to focus on pealing back reality or potatoes to see what is behind them. I think he found was some white edible starchy tubers.

Stuart Bush, Sigmar Polke review, potato house

Sigmar Polke “Object Potato House”, 1967/1990, Wood, potatoes
© 2019 The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The Art of Sigmar Polke – Review

Bridget Riley Art Review

I find myself thinking about Sigmar Polke preoccupation with potatoes.  The installation, ‘The Potato House’ (1967) or ‘Kartoffelhous’ in German is on view at this exhibition.  It critics capitalism through minimalism ideologies.  For some reason it made me think of Batman’s lair, the ultimate capitalist playhouse.  Batman’s safe place was his bat cave.  However, the German artist presents a house based on the scientific principle of a Faraday cage, with potatoes attached by spikes.  I wonder is it shielding the artist from a world of certain evil?  I think if evil came his way it would be laughing too much to look for something to steal.


At aged twenty, Sigmar Polke started his informative artistic training at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf.   Joseph Beuys was one of his tutors.  Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter were classmates.  It wasn’t that long until Polke and Richter started responding to the Pop Art from the West.  Sigmar Polke co-founded the German art movement, Capitalist realism in 1963.  This was the beginning of a tremendous output of work as Polke tried to come to terms with life, society and politics after the Second World War.  Under these circumstances, this was the start of a truly beguiling and varied body of artwork.


Looking at his work and trying to explain his tremendous output and highlight what it is about his work that moves you is hard to put into words.  The perplexity of his work makes it difficult.   You need much more than your eyes to see it.  It also helps to have an inquisitive, curious mind, to take on the pleasures in mistakes, imperfections and misdirections where everything is in a state of flux of construction and destruction.

Stuart Bush, Sigmar Polke review

Sigmar Polke installation shot Michael Werner Gallery

Stuart Bush Studio Notes: Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke - Wikipedia

Having an understanding of Dadaism, surrealism and anarchistic helps. So does the personal experience of critiquing consumerism and capitalism.  Where do you begin when you have the creative freedom to do anything you want and challenge the conventions of the past and present?


Sigmar set about a rampage to break down painting and photography; it was disappointing that his photos were not on display in this show.  Sigmar wanted to undermine the convention of directly depicting life from direct observation.  In his work as he breaks down the painterly language into pieces, of dislocation, misunderstanding and fragmentation.  Then he uses it as the mother of invention.


After all this destruction, Polke leaves all the pieces on the floor.  (In this show, it is also partly on the walls.)  At first, it is hard to understand why wouldn’t you put it back together again?  However, in leaving everything in disarray, he shows what freedom looks like.  His work depicts the realism of his psyche.

The Art of Sigmar Polke Review – Objects: Real and Imagined

Michael Werner London - 23 January to the 21 March 2020

The outcome of this exhibition and Sigmar Polke work in general spoofs our western aesthetics and challenges our convictions, it is an art, that at first sight, appears to offer very little.  In this exhibition, there are thirty or so drawings and a handful of sculptures.  However, from another perspective, the financial world, it is known by the shrewd investor that if they invest wisely after a recession they can get very rich.  For an inventive and cunning artist like Sigmar Polke, deciphering contrasting political ideologies, stylistic tropes, oxymorons and potential blind alleys in his work became overwhelming artistically rich with ideas.


Polke distinguishes himself from his professional peer group. Rather than going on to make work and having proposition, Polke went to the studio without a single preoccupation of where his work would lead.  This concept massively went against the grain.  People often shift towards what is accessible when looking for a way to start a commercial career.  Polke with his different background and different perspective felt he should wander into things that are inaccessible and look with eyes wide open and keep his boyish fascination with the world.


The mechanics of his work reveals that Polke put his heart and mind into what he saw.  He doubled back and said wait a minute, this is more complicated than you think it is.  Using contradiction is too strong a word.  He cleverly realised, however, that people should be constantly revising their conclusions.

Stuart Bush, Sigmar Polke review

Sigmar Polke installation shot Michael Werner Gallery

Stuart Bush Studio Notes: Sigmar Polke

What to paint – The recipe for failure

When Polke took to the studio to make artwork, he clearly did not put his audience first.  He also at that time did not consciously consider the next generation either.  This probably occurred to him much, much later, if at all?


For me, Polke was interested in serendipitous learning; learning for learning sake and art for art’s sake as he slowly discovers his own way of making art. He became the student of thematics, chance encounters and mistakes.  He spent his life looking into different ways of how concepts and ideas cluster.


What Sigmar Polke has achieved is like a scientist breaking down the subject human speech, however, without putting it into its formal parts and instead allowing random collections of thought.   Most people would put it back together again and write a book or try and create a new art movement.  Instead, Polke resisted the temptation to talk about his work.

The Art of Sigmar Polke – Review

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Art critics and artists like me want to unpick what Polke has achieved.  For me, I want to build a career on getting to the bottom of what success is on a canvas for my own artist’s practice and to help others understand. Polke just turned over the sack of potatoes and walked out, leaving us take what we want.  Let me say, raw potatoes don’t taste good.


In doing so, he has done every artist and art lover a good turn.  It was a massively generous act.  Polke has allowed us the space to render, make new connections, find new relationships, patterns and ways forward from all of his serendipitous learning.   It is intensely pleasurable as a visual magpie to come to see his exhibition.  It is clear he was having so much fun and freedom with his cynical humour.


Artists that don’t take risks get stuck.  Normally, when artists, pull everything down, they often start again.  This is a process that artists like Picasso and Cezanne have used in the past. They put it back together again twisting and manipulating it as a new way of seeing reality. However, Polke developed a refusal to maintain a look or a style.  He let inventiveness lead the way, his work forces our minds to wonder.

Stuart Bush Studio Notes, Sigmar Polke review

“Potato Machine – Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another”, 1969 Wooden frame, electric motor, rubber band, wire potatoes, Edition 28/30, Edition Staeck, Heidelberg
© 2019 The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Stuart Bush Studio Notes: Sigmar Polke

What I learnt from Philip Guston

It takes real dramatic events to start doing things differently.  I think by looking at Sigmar Polke’s work,  after the Second World War and during the Cold War, it clear to see how he used the opportunity to sweep away how things had been done before.  To going beyond the final frontier of art making it a perilous state where you don’t know what is happening.


Sigmar Polke’s work is a proposition, open to possibilities.  His mind is full of questions.  Everything is open for discussion.  When I look at his work, I want to start drawing and painting random thoughts and ideas on sheets of paper.   His genius was to ask questions without attempting to give any answers.  He was never bound to an idea while working on it, he was having way too much fun.  Over time, this indecipherability of worth turned into his signature style and defined him. Sigmar Polke sadly died in 2010 aged 69.


I warn you it takes a while to digest his raw potatoes!  This show is on until 21 March 2020.


Stuart Bush Studio Notes

Do you find it hard to get to the bottom of what an artist’s work is about?  I use to feel the same.  I use to look at art, feel curious but often duped as I didn’t understand what it was all about.  However, I had a curiosity to draw and paint and study art to get to the bottom of what I felt I didn’t apprehend. If you are curious to learn about the artist’s important role of meaning-making, I would love you to join me on my artist’s journey.  Join me each week on my journey by subscribing to my email newsletter. 

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