One of the most important and influential figures on the artistic scene today, Sigmar Polke began his professional career as a painter in 1963. A vast number of drawings from the first decade of his activity, most of which has never been seen in the United States, have been assembled for Sigmar Polke: Works on Paper, 1963—1974. Ranging from small ballpoint and felt-tipped pen drawings devoted to “Capitalist Realism” imagery (an ironic contraction of consumer capitalism and socialist realism) to a series of monumental works from the 1970s, the selection of approximately 180 drawings and gouaches and some twenty sketchbooks illustrate all the themes and techniques that Polke explored during this seminal period of his well-known idiosyncratic style.
Born in 1941 in East Germany, at age twelve Polke moved to Düsseldorf, where he studied at the Kunstakademie and produced his first work. With the effects of the war and postwar reconstruction lingering in Germany through the 1950s and 1960s, Polke’s early works were wry and sensitive commentaries on the purported pleasures of consumerism in a country that still felt the deprivations of war. Inspired by banal mass-produced imagery, Polke recast it, infusing it with his own brand of humor. Images of food and other commodities express the lack of basic necessities in the postwar years, while other motifs, referring to dance halls and palm trees, reveal a nostalgia for leisure time and inaccessible exotic places.
Although this work is contemporaneous to American Pop art, Polke demonstrates a different relationship to consumerism than his American counterparts. Rather than touting the glories of modern life, he often distorts or disrupts the ready-made iconography, investing it with a personal message. His parodies of politics, social conventions, and established artistic and cultural values reveal a joyful cynicism that is unique.
The broad variety of themes, interpretations, and techniques visible in these drawings provide a wealth of cues for understanding Polke’s paintings of the sixties, as well as his later work. While exhibitions of the drawings have been organized in Europe, they have never been fully presented to an American audience. It is hoped that this exhibition will serve to enhance our understanding of the mysteries and complexities of this major twentieth century artist.