‘Sigmar Polke. As everyone knew, he was the man of the 1970s’ (M. Kippenberger, quoted in P. Lange-Berndt and D. Rübel (eds). Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois: Comrades and Contemporaries. The 1970s, Cologne 2011, p. 29)
‘Technology is above requiring an interpretation; it interprets itself. You merely need to select the right objects and place them precisely in the picture; then they tell their story of their own accord’ (M. Kippenberger, quoted in Petra Lange-Berndt and Dietmar Rübel eds. Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois: Comrades and Contemporaries. The 1970s, Cologne, 2011, p. 29).
‘Polke found a... generative power in the destructive mechanisms of kitsch, in the ways in which its lowbrow sentimentality distorts and trivializes the original without regard to status. Of course, he recognized kitsch as a product that with its repackaging of cultural traditions for mass appeal celebrated the norms he rejected. In characteristic contradictory fashion he both appreciated and poked fun at kitsch, understanding how its vulgarity exposed concerns about what matters, what should be cared for and what is memorable. But by incorporating it into his work, Polke didn’t intend to make his art easier to grasp; in creating a new context for the hackneyed image, he aggressively disrupted its workaday or standard meaning, further complicating the commonplace’ (K. Halbreich, ‘Alibis’, in Sigmar Polke Alibis 1963-2010, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, p. 77).
An extremely rare painting from a very important period in the 1970s, Indianer mit Adler confronts the viewer head-on with the sheer raw energy and power of its image which is mirrored in its bold Lurex backdrop. Standing in front of the picture, the image seems to hover between a kind of spiritual apparition materialising from the paint itself, and a hallucinatory mental projection that the viewer brings into being. Shimmering and glowing in the changing light, the undulations and relief of this electric fabric are sparsely adorned with a trademark raw application of acrylic and enamel spray which traces the fleeting presence of the mythical figure of an Indian accompanied by the eagle. Dynamically swooping across his torso, the eagle represents honour, bravery, love, friendship and mystical powers for the Indian, but of course represents something altogether different for the German nation. Indianer mit Adler was executed in 1975, when Polke won the prize for painting at the Sao Paulo Bienal and prepared for his first museum retrospective at Kunsthalle Tubingen in 1976, which gave birth to his first near catalogue raisonné. This was a time of great reflection but also experimentation both artistically and personally for Polke. In 1974, he had visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, in what would become legendary life changing trips. This period is highly celebrated for the multiple journeys which Polke undertook to explore the world, as he became one of the first artists to benefit from freely available air travel. It was during this period that, along with the likes of Alighiero Boetti, he became one of the first truly global artists. He was also in the middle of a social experimentation with communal living in a small town near Dusseldorf, which brought with it all sorts of personal experimentation and, on top of this, he was in the midst of a deep and engaging investigation into the possibilities of photography. As such he barely had time to paint and was probably producing a maximum of five fully-realised paintings per year, if that. Organised by Benjamin Buchloh, the exhibition in Tubingen stopped at 1971 as its cut-off point which was probably around the time when Polke began to expand his interests beyond painting. Interestingly, the show travelled to the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf and the exhibition which immediately followed Polke’s at this museum was that of Andy Warhol. It was in this year, 1976, that Andy would make his now celebrated series of American Indians. Coincidentally, Polke had made a major painting of Mao in 1972 (which is now in MOMA, New York), and Warhol again made his series of Mao paintings a year later.
With its bold central image of an American Indian and an American eagle staring directly out of the painting towards the viewer, Indianer mit Adler is an outstanding painting from a highly important period. A dynamic composite of abstract shapes and patterns executed in flat vibrant acrylic colour and spray-paint on top of a radiant and reflective metallic copper fabric ground, the painting is in fact, not a ‘Pop’ portrait at all, but rather a powerful deconstruction of such a concept and of what in 1970s Germany, was a well-established and highly familiar, cultural stereotype. One can see the development of Polke’s interest in this imagery with the gelatin silver prints of Indians such as Untitled (Fly Agaric) which he adapted and altered through double exposure and overpainting with mushrooms and other paraphernalia in the same year, 1975. As with much of his work at this time, a synergy is developing between the things he is seeing in the real world and those in printed form, between those things he is filming and photographing and those which he is painting. Where Warhol’s vision of the American Indian a year later was a smooth transition of his photography to silkscreen portrait process with an albeit controversial image, Polke’s image was far more complex in its origins and implications.
The sister painting to this work, Indianer, is now in the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bonn. This painting bears a similarly stenciled, spray-painted image of an American Indian hovering like a spectre at the centre of a collage of other mass-media imagery spray-painted and stenciled on a richly patterned silver Lurex ground. Separated into two highly individual and very different works before they could ever be shown together, these two paintings were exhibited together for the very first time at the We, the Petty Bourgeois! exhibition in Hamburg in 2011. While the present work, with its imposing and cohesive image appears to laud and celebrate the heroic icon of the American Indian in all his glory, the Bonn painting exposes such an image to be but one of several typecast pulp-fiction images by contrasting the same stenciled face of the Indian with a confusing mélange of other stereotypes: cartoon figures drawn from detective novels, mythological creatures and a group Mexican banditos.
The iconic, but also clichéd image of the American Indian as a lone, proud and noble warrior who lived in harmony with nature and stood in singular opposition to the white-man’s greed was a familiar icon of much 1960s counterculture and, alongside that of the beret-wearing Che Guevara, a favoured icon to be found on many a student’s wall at this time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s in Germany this stereotypical image of the Indian was greatly reinforced through the hugely popular German television series Winnetou based on the early twentieth century novels of Karl May. These novels, with their romanticized tales of the Old West had themselves captivated an earlier generation of young German rebels that ranged from a young George Grosz and Albert Einstein to Adolf Hitler and so also carried a somewhat sinister lineage in German history. In the late 60s and early 70s, the romanticized cult of the noble American Indian was once again being perpetuated through these same stories by this memorable television series.
Indianer mit Adler was painted in 1975 at the height of Polke’s so-called ‘Wir Kleinebürger’ or ‘We, the Petty Bourgeois’ period when the artist was living and working in a commune in the small suburb of Willich near Dusseldorf. This commune-based anti-bourgeois way of life in the 1970s informed and marked much of the artist’s work of the period, but until the recent exhibition of leading works from this key period in Polke’s career was held at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2011, little was known about it outside of Polke’s circle. In particular, it was this period that coloured and guided much of Polke’s active rejecting of what he saw as the philistinism of modern German culture and the cult of ‘artisthood’ that was then being both propagated and offered to him personally, by an increasingly commercialized art world. Living a counter-cultural life outside of conventional society, yet also in the very midst of one of Germany’s most mundane and bourgeois suburbs, much of Polke’s work from this time is concerned, in an almost activist manner, with either positing an alternative to societal stereotypes and cultural conventions or with exposing and undermining those that do exist. Executed in 1975, Indianer mit Adler is a sumptuous ‘Pop’ de-construction that simultaneously both lauds and mocks its heroic, romanticised and almost overly American image. Part kitsch album-cover portrait, part psychedelia, part American mass-media cliché, this work reveals this cultural stereotype of the Old West to be a glorious and alluring technicolour artifice. Revelling in the exoticism and kitsch of his media - lurid acrylic colour, jewel-like metallic spray paint and the rich, warm reflective surface of the Lurex fabric that is the painting’s ground - Polke has fused a sequence of interconnecting flat abstract shapes into a vibrant stencil-like portrait that makes a lustrous show of its own technicolour unreality.
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)
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Signed and dated 'S. Polke 1975' (on the stretcher)
Sigmar Polke , 1970s, Paintings, Contemporary
New York, Luhring Augustine Gallery, Return of the Hero: Baselitz, Förg, Kippenberger, Oehlen, Polke, Richter, 1994.
Klosterneuburg, Sammlung Essl, Permanent 01, 2000-2002.
Vienna, Essl Museum - Kunst der Gegenwart, Baselitz Bis Lassnig: Meisterhafte Bilder, 2008, p. 195 (illustrated in colour, p. 110).
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Sigmar Polke. Wir Kleinbürger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen, 2009-2010.
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum, CORSO. Werke der Sammlung Essl im Dialog , 2010.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
71 1/8 x 59¼in. (178.5 x 150.3cm.)
Sammlung Essl - the first view, exh. cat., Klosterneuburg, Sammlung Essl, 1999, p. 391 (illustrated in colour, p. 215).
P. Lange-Berndt and D. Rübel (eds.), Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois! Comrades and Contemporaries The 1970s, Cologne 2011 (illustrated in colour, p. 234).
Dr. Gerhard Krull, Cologne (acquired directly from the artist).
Froelich Collection, Stuttgart.
Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 18 November 1997, lot 125.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.