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German artist Sigmar Polke, creator of 'Higher Beings Command,' dies at 69

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; C08

Sigmar Polke, 69, a German artist whose work leaped across boundaries of style, medium and taste, and whose mocking view of art-world orthodoxy became a model for a younger generation of artists, died June 10 of cancer in Cologne, Germany.

Mr. Polke's artwork ranged from mere squiggles on paper to colossally ornate creations, dense with imagery and competing visual elements. He defied standard artistic labels, passing from one visual obsession to another as he produced a large body of paintings, drawings, photography and three-dimensional installations.

In 1999, Art News magazine called Mr. Polke (pronounced "Polka") one of the world's "ten most important living artists," and his work was regularly exhibited in museums and cutting-edge venues such as Italy's Venice Biennale. In 2007, one of his paintings from the 1960s sold for more than $5 million.

"Polke for a long time has been the most interesting, least predictable of the painters around," critic and curator Robert Storr said in 2007.

Mr. Polke could be frivolous and serious at the same time. He often used unusual materials in his work -- including toxic chemicals and perishable food -- and delighted in thumbing his nose at artistic convention. An underground sensation in the 1970s, when he traveled the world seeking exotic experiences through drugs and his ever-present camera, he found wider acceptance and commercial success in the 1980s. His freewheeling, anything-goes artistic vision became a primary inspiration for younger artists, including Americans Julian Schnabel and David Salle.

In the 1960s, Mr. Polke was at the vanguard of a German artistic movement called capitalist realism, along with fellow painter Gerhard Richter -- who later expressed reservations about his colleague's work, saying "he refuses to accept any borders, any limits."

Early in his career, Mr. Polke borrowed from the exaggerated comic-book style of Roy Lichtenstein (complete with so-called "Polke dots") and the colliding images of James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg. Under the pop art exuberance, however, were dark undertones of Mr. Polke's childhood in East Germany.

He made collages with images drawn from advertising and newspaper photographs, mixed with splashes of paint and references to classical myths. He often painted directly on translucent fabric and, at times, incorporated plastic tubs, potatoes and liverwurst in his artwork.

"He attacked painting as if he meant to trash it," critic Peter Schjeldahl said in the New Yorker. "He painted on tacky, non-canvas fabrics -- printed tablecloths, for instance -- with a witches' brew of non-paint chemicals."

Amused or frustrated by the expectations of the art establishment, Mr. Polke made a tongue-in-cheek series of paintings and drawings in the 1960s called "Higher Beings Command." For example, he would type the phrase "Higher Beings Command: Paint an Angle!" on a sheet of notepaper, then draw an "L" with a ballpoint pen.

In 1970s, Mr. Polke used LSD and other hallucinogens and traveled the world, taking photographs of opium dens in Pakistan, gay bars in Brazil and bear-baiting matches in Afghanistan. He composed a series of phantasmagoric paintings called "Alice in Wonderland" and sometimes printed his photographs while high on LSD, manipulating the prints to create unusual visual effects.

Where some saw freedom and originality, others saw, in the words of critic Robert Hughes, "the rambling, no-rules character of a dopehead's monologue."

Mr. Polke took a more serious turn in the 1980s, with a series of large-scale paintings of watchtowers that evoked Germany's Nazi past and the divisions between east and west. He devised ways to make images and colors shift or vanish, depending on the angle from which they were viewed, and continued to experiment with photography and unusual materials. His use of chemicals, arsenic and meteor fragments led him to be known as an "artistic alchemist."

"There has to be an element of risk-taking for me in my work," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. "However, I no longer drink, smoke or take drugs. I stopped because I felt I'd had enough, but I learned a great deal from drugs -- the most important thing being that the conventional definition of reality, and the idea of 'normal life,' mean nothing."

Sigmar Polke was born Feb. 13, 1941, in what is now Olesnica, Poland, then part of the eastern German region of Silesia. He escaped to West Germany when he was 12 years old; he said he pretended to be asleep while riding a subway across the border to West Berlin.

He studied glass painting in his teens before becoming a student of influential German artist Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf. Mr. Polke taught around the world, but he often withdrew to his home in Cologne, sometimes not answering his telephone or reading his mail for months at a time.

He was married and divorced twice and had two children.

Mr. Polke was fond of using ephemeral materials, such as beeswax, candle smoke on glass, and pigments that would break down and deteriorate over time.

"Yes, my works . . . are enshrined in museums, but I don't care if the pieces fall apart in 20 years," he said. "And as for art history -- I tear the pages out of the history books and throw them away!"

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