One of the most interesting exhibitions this spring will be presented at Christie’s in London. Polke/Richter-Richter/Polke, celebrates two giants of painting: Gerhard Richter (b.1932) and Sigmar Polke (1941-2010). The show brings together 65 works from 30 collections to create the artists’ first joint show in almost 50 years, since their now legendary 1966 exhibition at Galerie h in Hanover. This show was a declaration of their intention to resurrect painting, a medium presumed dead, by deconstructing it and opening up new possibilities. Christie’s Polke/Richter-Richter/Polke reunites two of the works from this show (Flemish Crown, by Richter and Bavarian by Polke, illustrated below), as well as others from the period, and then surveys the artists’ careers since then, until Polke’s death.
Francis Outred, Christie’s Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art, Europe, says: “Richter and Polke are the dynamic duo of German painting in the past 50 years. They became friends in the early ’60s, seeking to reinvent painting by deconstructing it, mixing all the pieces together and putting it back together again to open up new possibilities, as witnessed in their landmark 1966 two-man show, Richter/Polke. We take this 1966 exhibition as a starting point for charting their work in the ensuing decades. While their friendship waned and they developed in different directions – Richter stayed close to home in Cologne, Polke wandered the world – both remained true to their shared belief in painting as an essential medium. Despite their divergent paths, their art and ideas overlap in interesting ways. ”
Gerhard Richter commented on their friendship and later rivalry: “I remember how close this friendship was, but also how tough it sometimes was…In retrospect I’m amazed it was so brutal. We were very unsure of ourselves, and each tried to cover this up in his own way. I can only say that that’s the way it was. Polke drifted away into the psychedelic direction and I into the classical.”
In their 1966 joint exhibition, Richter and Polke showcased their radical approach to painting, seeking to expand the possibilities and methodologies of painting at a time when the medium was often considered passé in the face of conceptualism. In Richter’s blurring of his paintings from photographs and in Polke’s exaggerated distortion of the raster dot process (a commercial printing process), both artists probed the limits of abstraction and figuration. These investigations would continue throughout their work, but the 1966 Galerie h exhibition in Hanover was the only show until now that presented only the works of these two artists in dialogue. The pair collaborated on every element of the 1966 exhibition, including jointly writing the catalogue text and designing it together as an artist book, which we celebrate in our own catalogue, reproducing their original essay and many of their original archival photos. The original artist book is currently featured in a documentary exhibition at the Albertinum in Dresden, curated by Dr Dietmar Elger, Director of the Richter Archive, Dresden, who has contributed an essay on the 1966 Galerie h exhibition to the Christie’s catalogue.
The 1966 exhibition marked the beginning and foundation of the artists’ “Capitalist Realism” phase, an ironic twist on the Socialist Realism both artists had grown up with in East Germany. Two of the earliest works by both artists, from the original 1966 exhibition, will be on display: Richter’s Flemish Crown (1965), illustrated left and Polke’s Bavarian (1965) illustrated below right. During this period, Berlin had been divided by the Wall for two years and, as former residents of the East, Polke and Richter created a version of Pop that reflected West Germany’s social and economic conditions and its embrace of Capitalism, rather than American popular culture.
Their work aimed to puncture the complacent bourgeois façades of the post-war Wirtenschaftswunder years under the Marshall Plan, characterised by rapid reconstruction and ignoring the recent past. Richter’s blurred portraits and the ambiguous imagery of Polke’s magnified raster-dot paintings exposed the manifest falsity of all images, mechanically produced or otherwise. Bavarian (1965) is one of Polke’s first raster-dot paintings, the so called Rasterbilder. It is a semi- abstract oil painting depicting a banal extract from a contemporary newspaper article in a style that mimics mechanical process of reproduction by which such mass media is made. Polke used a printing technique called “rastering”, which created a cohesive image with tones out of the Ben-Day dots. Rather than precisely reproducing the neat dots like Roy Lichtenstein, Polke used the dots as an abstract device to distort his images and almost parody American Pop. With Bavarian Polke created a painting that openly displays its own artificiality at the same time as it exposes the banal unreality and artifice of the mass media.
Richter’s Small Car Park (1965), from the same period, features a row of cars at the base of the Siegessäule (the victory column in West Berlin, which Hitler moved to its current location) and encapsulates many of the issues that Richter would explore in his Capitalist Realism phase, namely the economic power and affluence of Wirtschaftswunder Germany and, by hinting towards the location of this car park, at the bottom of the Siegessäule, Post-War Gemany’s Nazi past.
The 1966 Richter/Polke exhibition also marked the high point of the artists’ friendship, which waned toward the end of the 1960s and turned into a kind of painterly rivalry on par with those of Picasso and Matisse, Freud and Bacon. Unlike these celebrated pairs, Polke and Richter began as the best of friends, forming an instant bond when they met at Dusseldorf Art Academy in 1961, both of them having fled East Germany before the Berlin Wall was erected. Having grown up in a time of extreme social and cultural disruption, in the midst of the horrific daily reality of war followed by Russian occupation, and developing as artists in a period when this reality was being rejected in favour of total abstraction in the 1950s, the pair came together at a kind of ground zero in post-war art history. As the movements of pure abstraction in America and Europe had virtually run their courses, these artists chose to begin a complete deconstruction of painting, to strip it back and rebuild what could be conceived as the ‘possibilities in painting’. Their painterly projects not only revived the idea of painting in the post-modern period but made it exciting again. They took pre-existing styles and threw them into the mixer, creating magical works that influenced future generations.
Co-curator Kenny Schachter says: “Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter shared a driven work ethic and lifelong dedication to art. Their rivalry was more philosophical conversation than intellectual gunfight. Richter’s forays into exuberant colour and disquieting realism answer Polke’s magical, piss-taking picture potions. To see their highly influential work together is to revel in some of the Apollonian and Dionysian extremes of the art of the past sixty years, and to better understand the art that is being made today.”
The exhibition follows both artists work onto their later years, marked by a rise to fame and changes to their techniques and ideas in the late 80s. Gerhard Richter’s first major retrospective began in 1986 at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf before travelling to Berlin, Bern and Vienna, where it was greeted with critical acclaim. For Polke, whose long-overdue first comprehensive retrospective opens at New York MOMA on 19 April 2014, the 1980s saw him beginning to mix traditional pigments with solvents, varnishes, toxins and resins to produce spontaneous chemical reactions as seen in Laterna Magica (1988-1996). From the second half of the
1980s, Polke was experimenting with transparent bases for pictures; he soaked materials with artificial resins prior to painting on them so that the frame itself became part of the picture. Parallel to this, he also created works that were painted on both sides, the reverse side rendering the groundwork for the appearance of the picture facing the viewer. The viewer is confronted with three pictorial layers: the painted surface, the pattern of the fabric, and the reverse side showing through. The translucent, window-like paintings of the Laterna Magica series presented a universe of fables, fairy-tales and alchemical motifs.
Polke/Richter-Richter/Polke is co-curated by Christie’s specialist Darren Leak and collector, curator and writer Kenny Schachter. It will span more than five decades of the artists’ work and will bring Richter and Polke into an intimate dialogue once more.
Christie’s Darren Leak says: “includes two key works from the original 1966 show after that historic exhibition, Richter and Polke sped off into wildly different directions, like the poles of two magnets pushed against each other. Richter took a more classical route, Polke a more cosmic.”
Exhibition: Polke/Richter-Richter/Polke Christie’s Mayfair, 103 New Bond Street, London W1S 1ST 25 April – 7 July 2014