Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) is one of the great artists of the 20th century, yet his significance continues to defy the art market. One of the most important artists to have come to prominence in Europe in the 1960s, alongside his peer and early colleague Gerhard Richter, Polke’s market nonetheless remains something of a riddle to the uninitiated.
Polke was a stylistic chameleon with a lifelong commitment to being an iconoclast. The sheer scope and diversity of his work can make it difficult to grasp. “He had one of the most complicated and creative intellectual sensibilities I have been exposed to,” says Kathy Halbreich, the associate director of MoMA. In organizing the first comprehensive Polke retrospective in the US in 2015, Halbreich felt “a responsibility to change his stature so that people had to grapple with the protean imagination and extraordinary range of things that made him the great innovator of our time”.
Artists too swoon over his work. David Salle exhorts us to “immerse yourself in his art and weep for the diminished spirit of our present age” in a chapter on Polke entitled “The German Miracle” in the recent book How To See: Looking, Talking and Thinking About Art.
And yet Polke’s prices at auction pale in comparison with his peers. “It makes no sense that the auction record for Sigmar is half of that of Gerhard,” says David Zwirner, whose gallery took on representation of the Polke estate last year. “Sigmar’s market has quite a way to go, but it almost certainly will go that extra mile. Time will rectify the gap.”
“Polke is as much a paradigm shifter as Duchamp and Warhol,” says Allan Schwartzman. “I have a running list of great artists who are undervalued and Polke is at the top. He is the master of every visual language in art from Pop to Minimal, Conceptual, representation cohabited with abstraction. He dealt with alchemy, the sublime, the ironic, the satiric and the mystical, often in challenging, unorthodox but magical ways.”
The MoMA exhibition was the first time many people had been exposed to the breadth of Polke’s output, and it “opened up a whole new audience for his work”, Zwirner says. “It was a great retrospective that brought us to the very beginning of his career and took us into the last works.” There has long been deep-rooted support for Polke’s work, particularly in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and cities across America such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York. “If you talk to people who have been buying art over the past 20 years they would all agree that their collections won’t be complete without a work by Polke,” Zwirner says. A recent development, though, “is that those who entered the market in the past eight years are beginning to realize that this is a major artist”.
Zwirner’s representation of the estate opens a new window of visibility for Polke’s work and lends his market presence a consistency it lacked during his lifetime. Polke avoided a clear gallery profile and never had an exclusive gallery representative during his lifetime, says Michael Trier, the artistic director of the Sigmar Polke estate: “He always seemed to control the situation by dividing his generosity.” [See end]
To date, works by Polke haven’t performed well at auction. ”It has always been up and down, with few exceptions,” Trier says. “The Duerckheim sale at Sotheby’s in 2011 [had a] group of key pictures [that] pushed the chart up. However, most of these paintings were bought by dealers, which suggests that it was a good investment for them.”
That auction set a then-record when the 1967 “Rasterbild” painting Dschungel (Jungle), sold for $9.2m. The same painting, which depicts a watery setting sun that might be pretty were it not for the foreboding foliage creeping in at the edges, set a new record in 2015 when it sold again at Sotheby’s for $27.1m. This shows the potential in the market but a full correction is long overdue: The top five auction records total a combined $58.4m, all sold between 2011 and 2015. The average price is lower: the combined value of the 88 works by the artist to sell at evening auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s since 2009 is $147.1m, making the mean just shy of $1.7m.
By way of contrast, the combined value of just 14 works by Richter sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening auctions last year alone was $140m. The top price for a Richter was set in 2015 when the 10-ft tall Abstraktes Bild (1986) sold at Sotheby’s for $46.3m (a huge return on the $607,500 paid for it in 1999) and his works regularly sell for tens of millions of dollars. There have been 165 works by the artist to sell at evening auction since 2009 for a total $1.2billion.
Sigmar has not been easy to absorb into peoples’ living rooms and, frankly, I don’t know if that would have bothered him so much
Of course, data only takes us so far because, while their impact on art history is on a par, Richter and Polke were fundamentally different artists. Polke’s relentless inventiveness is what makes him a compelling and unique artist, but also makes it difficult for a market to develop momentum and confidence in the work because the spectrum is so broad. “Sigmar has not been easy to absorb into peoples’ living rooms and, frankly, I don’t know if that would have bothered him so much,” Halbreich says. “I don’t think he really believed great art was immediately digestible. In his work you see this incredible span of drop-dead beauty and the poisonous. You can’t say what he is about in a sentence. I don’t think Sigmar wanted to be embraced, he made so little effort in that direction.”
Markets tend to like ease, but with Polke the works that are most complicated or difficult to fathom are often the best.”The efficiency with which the market usually distinguishes good from great does not apply for this artist—Polke’s genius is rooted in a commitment to the complex process of understanding work which willfully and giddily defies rules and norms,”Schwartzman says, adding: “I’ve had the great opportunity to place several dozen of Polke’s work from every period in major American collections—many acquired at bargain prices because, with art that is difficult to categorize and understand, the market doesn’t always know what it has.”
“There wasn’t a pioneer like Polke in the 20th century apart from Picabia, who was equally hard to pin down” says Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner in the Michael Werner gallery, which worked with the artist from the 1970s. The London branch of the gallery is currently showing an exhibition of “Pour paintings on paper” Polke made between 1985 and 2006. “Polke works on so many different levels at one time,” VeneKlasen says. “His work is vastly undervalued.”
Even those in the know don’t agree on what they like best about Polke’s work. While there is a lot of focus on Polke’s paintings from the 1960s and the “alchemical” paintings made in the 1980s, Salle singles out the lyricism of Polke’s “angelic line”, while, Halbreich locates Polke’s genius in his all-encompassing range and ability to find “beauty in terrible, polluted things and techniques”.
Polke worked across many media and his subject matter is multifarious, referring at once to art history and great works of fiction as well as the Nazi era, blending the higher points of human culture with basest moments of modern history. Nothing was off-topic.
The mercurial nature of Polke’s artistic sensibility led him to change styles frequently, moving with ease in and out of figuration and abstraction, and through movements such as Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Expressionism. His lack of reverence meant that he took none of these very seriously, while somehow still making serious art. He made work that mocked the notion of the brilliance of the artist’s brushstroke while happening to make really wonderful brushstrokes.
He pushed material to the point where reason falters
His use of materials is equally confounding. Polke “pushed material to the point where reason falters, and where things begin to find their form not through the artist’s foresight or deliberate hand but through such non-rational conditions as gravity, accident, and the associative power of the unconscious”, writes Halbreich in her MoMA catalogue essay. The myriad materials in Polke’s work include, but are not limited to, meteor dust, minerals, smoke, cartoons and advertisements, photographs—pornographic and otherwise—resin, household paint and diluted brandy.
East meets West
Polke began making art in the 1960s at a time when few people were paying attention to European painting. During this time he and Richter, who were both originally from the-then East Germany and met as students at Düsseldorf’s arts academy, formed a movement with the painter Konrad Lueg (whose real name was Konrad Fischer) called Capitalist Realism, their take on American Pop Art and Socialist Realism. In contrast to the affluent, youth-oriented consumer society of the US, their work was being made in a German city devastated by war. Richter was living on refugee assistance while Polke sold stained glass objects to get by. Theirs was Pop purged of sugar, as Salle puts it.
During this period Polke created some of his best-known works, the Rasterbild paintings. They “are among his most coveted works. They are also among the rarest”, says gallerist Anthony Meier, who began dealing in Polke’s works on the secondary market in 1986. “In our lifetime there won’t be more than another 10 to 15 great Rasterbilds that come on the market.”
In our lifetime there won’t be more than another 10 to 15 great Rasterbilds that come on the market
These are Polke’s antidotes to Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dot paintings. But whereas the American artist was concerned with manufacturing the perfect circle, Polke was looking at the ways in which errors appear in printing, creating sloppy, inconsistent circles. His subject matter was darker, too: the Vietnam war, for instance.
Also in the 1960s, Polke made a small series of paintings called Streifenbilder, or striped paintings, his take on Minimalism and conceptual approaches to painting. During this period he created works on printed fabrics as well as diverse objects and installations.
For a period during the 1970s Polke worked with the help of fellow artists like Achim Duchow on shows that had a free approach towards who the author was, albeit carried out under Polke’s control, Trier says.
He dropped out of the scene in which he had been embedded in, instead in 1980 travelling to Australia, New Guinea, Tasmania and other South East Asian countries. During this 13-month journey, he would film and take photographs.
Apathy towards the market
All of a sudden, in the 1980s, the market turned its attention to the generation of German painters that included Polke, Richter, Baselitz, Immendorff and Penck. The “discovery” coincided with several major international exhibitions, notably the 1982 Documenta, which crystallized for an American audience which had been principally focused on contemporary art made by US artists that great painting had been going on in Europe, as well.
Most of them had been ignored by the market for the past decade and had not been expecting its arrival. When it came, Polke was not interested in conforming to its demands. “He made choices that were intended in some way to divert the consumerist urge that was rising in the art world from the 1980s on,” Halbreich says: “I am positive it was a conscious strategy. I think he released into the market work he knew wasn’t as substantial as other work, to see who would bite. I can hear him cackling maliciously as I say that: he was a very complicated person.”
This apathy towards the market informed his decision not to compile a catalogue raisonné during his lifetime. Whereas Richter collectors can refer to his catalogue raisonnés for a sense of how many works exist and which groups they belong to, Polke rejected the idea. “I pointed out to Polke that a catalogue raisonné might help him [but] he preferred to keep his freedom. He didn’t want to be controlled,” Trier says.
What comes next
Now, the estate is working on just such a publication with the help of historians and curators who all worked with Polke during his lifetime, such as Bice Curiger, Katharina Schmidt, Götz Adriani and Guy Tossato. “It will take quite a while to do, but in the long run the audience will learn to understand Polke’s achievements,” Trier says. The estate is also working on an extensive archive including Polke’s vast library. “It is a lot of detective work,” Trier says. “We have to identify everything, bring pieces together and use films and photographs for our research. We are also looking at these photographs to identify paintings and understand their genesis.”
Supply to the market is likely to be slow and deliberate. In general there are not that many paintings from the 1960s and most of these are already in museum collections. While there are “wonderful works in the estate—Sigmar was known to hold back some of his best work”, Zwirner says, it is unlikely that there will be a sudden outpouring on to the market. One likely factor is German estate laws, which means works sold within ten years of the artist’s death incur significant taxes. Another is more tactical. “Like all intelligent estates they will keep the supply somewhat limited. There is definitely a strategy to bring works into the market slowly and carefully,” Zwirner says. “They feel as much as we do that the long-term horizon for his prices is probably going to be quite a bit higher.”
There is yet more to come: Polke’s work on film has never been fully examined during his lifetime. Several were shown for the first time in the MoMA retrospective, an experience that gave Halbreich “a profound understanding of how influential the moving picture was in Sigmar’s work. I don’t think he could have made his paintings without that.” Research into, and exhibition of, the films is a long-term project being conducted by the estate. “There will be a lot of surprises to come”, Zwirner says.
“He was the shaman, magician, prankster, and the irreverent, the keeper of faith in anti-establishmentarianism, a believer potentially in everything and nothing, seeker of transcendence, and its opposites,”Schwartzman says. “He was an artist of his times. He was of, and for, the centuries.”
A potted history of Polke’s gallery representation
Polke “did not follow the money”, Zwirner says. “He liked working with interesting figures that he would know personally and he would be loyal to less well-known art dealers. In a funny way, that has also held back his market a little bit.”
If “Polke’s work is a lifelong essay on the theme of freedom—what it looks like, and what it takes to achieve and maintain it,” as Salle puts it, he lived his life with equal independence—which translated as a certain apathy about the market. “His relationships with dealers was complicated,” says Fergus McCaffrey, who began his career at Michael Werner and later showed Polke’s work in his own gallery. “Sigmar was extraordinarily difficult to reach. You would call or fax and he wouldn’t answer so the only way to have a conversation with him was to fly to Cologne and stand on the step outside his studio and hope to see him.”
Polke staged one-man shows in the 1960s with René Block in Berlin, Heiner Friedrich in Munich and Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne. In the 1970s he exhibited with Michael Werner and Thomas Borgmann in Cologne, Toni Gerber in Bern and Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf (Fischer had been an equally important member of capitalist realism who eventually gave up painting under the name Konrad Lueg and was to become the most important dealer in postwar avant-garde in Europe). Later in that decade Ninon Robelin’s Galerie BAMA in Paris became important for the artist, while Erhard Klein showed Polke in Bonn throughout the 1970s until the 1990s.
Dietmar Werle in Cologne worked with Polke for several years and arranged the early shows in New York at Holly Solomon and Marian Goodman in 1984. He was also influential in placing works in the Froehlich collection in Stuttgart and with Frieder Burda in Baden- Baden. Another figure was Helen van der Meij who showed Polke in her Seriaal gallery in Amsterdam and then worked on projects in London with Anthony d’Offay. When Michael Werner opened in New York the gallery, principally Gordon VeneKlasen, started working with Polke there until the artist’s death.