Book Notes

Sigmar Polke, founder of Capital Realism art movement

Sigmar Polke, Palmen (Palm Trees), 1968; acrylic on mattress ticking; 51-1/4 in. x 43-3/8 in.; fractional purchase and bequest of Phyllis Wattis; © 2012 Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

“You can’t exist in a vacuum, you are rooted in time.”
— Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke is primarily known for his paintings. Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, recently published by MoMA New York, illustrates the broad scope of the artist’s work, which includes film, drawing, performance, photography installation, Xerox, and combinations of these mediums creating for the first time a complete picture of the artist’s career.

Born in Germany, Polke studied arts at the Dusseldorf Arts Academy where his teacher, the artist Joseph Beuys, profoundly influenced him. Both artists utilized unconventional materials in their art, in Beuys’s case, felt and fat. Polke mixed elements like arsenic, uranium and meteor dust in his paint out of his interest in alchemy and the human condition in the atomic age. Unseen destructive forces such as toxicity and radiation fascinated Polke, and he covered the canvas with chemicals that are altered by their environment, transforming the appearance of the paintings’ surface over time.

For example, Polke’s The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III (1988) is a part of the SFMOMA’s permanent collection and contains nickel, silver and meteor granulate to symbolize the new world of the American continent. A tribute based on a Native American proverb, the pulverized metals in the paint react with sunlight causing a slow coloration change as the painting advances in years. Palmen, also residing at SFMOMA, is an example of Polke’s more traditional Pop Art stylings combining acrylic Ben Day dots on mattress ticking.

Polke, along with his contemporaries Gerhard Richter and Konrad Fischer, created the movement they called Capital Realism as a kind of anti-art that embraced the design approaches in advertising. Their version of Pop Art included images from newspaper headlines and repeated motifs not commonly associated with fine art.

Through the seventies, Polke traveled throughout the world and created performance and photography pieces inspired by his journeys. When he eventually returned to painting, he merged abstract and figurative imagery to forge a new approach to the medium using everyday subject matter in unusual juxtapositions suggesting inner worlds and introspection.

One of the most influential artists of the postwar generation, Sigmar Polke’s impact is evident in the works of contemporary painters such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Richard Prince. Polke’s journals, drawings and photos also appear in this volume, providing an intimate glimpse into the artist’s experimental process.

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, by Kathy Halbreich, Mark Godfrey, and Lanka Tattersall (eds.), 320 pages, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, $75.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at