His works infused with irony and reflection, German artist Sigmar Polke was an enigmatic observer of his era. A German museum is showing an enhanced version of the retrospective that's passed through New York and London.
It's been five years since Sigmar Polke passed away. A widely acclaimed retrospective of his work took place at the MoMA in New York last year - a show Polke was able to help prepare before his death.
After a stint at the Tate Gallery in London, the exhibition has now arrived in Germany's Rhineland region, where Polke spent 50 years of his life. Thirty of those years were spent in the metropolis of Cologne, where Museum Ludwig is hosting the show.
Would the artist have wanted to get this kind of recognition from his elected hometown? "Never ever," said US curator Kathy Halbreich. "Maybe," admitted curator Barbara Engelbach in Cologne.
It was Engelbach who brought the costly exhibition to the Rhineland and expanded it to include photographs and films by Polke.
Role model for generations to come
Sigmar Polke was an art superstar for decades and, after Gerhard Richter, the most lucrative German artist on the market. In Cologne, and especially at Museum Ludwig, he's no stranger, although he was considered "difficult" since he withdrew from the business side of art.
"Like a sponge, he soaked up all of the social changes he observed and turned them into artworks that have an unbelievable autonomy," said Engelbach. She considers Polke's work unique among the contemporary artists and says his influence on generations to come will be enormous.
Engelbach organized the Cologne exhibition chronologically and placed a bright pink arch over the entrance. Images of shirts, socks, sausages and chocolate greet visitors at the start.
Like American Pop artists, Polke also toyed with consumerist imagery. He called the motif "capitalist realism" with an ironic nod to "socialist realism" from the East Bloc.
The artist was born in 1941, during World War II, in what was then the ethnic German Silesian region of Poland. After the war, Poland became part of the communist Soviet bloc.
Polke got a first-hand taste of communism before his family managed to escape to West Germany in 1953.
The exhibition presents a firework of forms and colors, paintings and drawings, graphics, prints, sculptures, photos and films. Polke was a pioneer of multimedia and an all-rounder who pondered what was going on in the post-WWI, Cold War Germany of his day and commented on it with irony.
In one abstract construction, elegantly titled "Modern Art," a swastika emerges through a disorderly chaos of splashes and spots.
Jester, alchemist, mystery
Neither abstract nor realistic, Polke's work dodges traditional categories which clearly didn't interest him anyway. Later on, he experimented with unusual material from the realm of science: star dust, juice from snails, uranium, and highly poisonous cobalt nitrate.
He also created pictures that changed according to temperature or the angle in which they were viewed.
Towards the end of his life, Polke focused on works that exuded beauty and were larger-than-life and full of brilliant colors. In Zurich, he designed a stained class window for the Grossmünster cathedral.
While the art world may have initially viewed him as a jester - his clownish world view is a leitmotif in the exhibition - now they know him as an alchemist. Ultimately, however, Polke remains "a mystery," as Engelbach said.
"Ordered by a higher power: Black paint in the upper-right corner!" ("Höhere Mächte befahlen: rechte obere Ecke schwarz malen!") With the sense of irony that was so typical for him, Polke wrote this on a painting that would promptly become his most famous work.
He constantly kept the art world on its toes and had "a feeling for the crises of the time," said curator Engelbach.
The Sigmar Polke exhibition in Museum Ludwig runs from March 14-July 5, 2015.