Sigmar Polke: Biography

German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) is widely considered to be one of the most influential painters of the postwar era. Characterized by an experimental approach to a wide variety of styles, media, and subject matter, Polke's work engages unconventional and diverse materials and techniques, as well as the use of ironic and humorous imagery, as strategies of social, political, and aesthetic critique.

Polke received his first artistic training, beginning in 1959, as a glass painter, and in 1961 he enrolled at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf to study painting. In 1963, Polke, along with fellow students Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, and Gerhard Richter, organized an exhibition of their own work in an empty butcher’s shop in Düsseldorf. The show helped to launch the artists' early careers and first introduced the term “Capitalist Realism.” By the end of the decade, Polke would have solo exhibitions at such notable galleries as Galerie René Block, Berlin; Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf; Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich; and Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Cologne.

Since Polke’s first participation in documenta 5 in 1972, he has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at significant institutions, including Sigmar Polke. Bilder, Tücher, Objekte. Werkauswahl 1962-1971, which was held at the Kunsthalle Tübingen, Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, and the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven in 1976. In 1983, the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam hosted Sigmar Polke that traveled to Kunstmuseum Bonn in 1984. Harald Szeemann curated a retrospective of Polke’s work in 1984, which was held at the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Josef-Haubrich-Kunsthalle, Cologne. In 1988, Polke exhibited new work in the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris. An extensive retrospective, Sigmar Polke. Die drei Lügen der Malerei, was presented at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, in 1997, and traveled to the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin in 1997-1998.

His first U.S. retrospective took place at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Brooklyn Museum, New York in 1990-1992. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles organized an exhibition of Polke’s photographs (Sigmar Polke: Photoworks. When Pictures Vanish) in 1995-1997, which traveled to Site Santa Fe, New Mexico (1996), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1996-1997). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized an overview of the artist’s works on paper in 1999, which traveled to the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

Polke’s work was also featured in solo exhibitions at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, and the Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk (Sigmar Polke. Alchimist, 2001); the Dallas Museum of Art (Sigmar Polke: History of Everything. Recent Paintings and Drawings, 2002-2003, which traveled to Tate Modern, London in 2003); Kunsthaus Zürich (Sigmar Polke. Werke & Tage, 2005); Ueno Royal Museum, Tokyo (Sigmar Polke: Alice in Wonderland, which traveled to The National Museum of Art, Osaka, 2005-2006); Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim (Sigmar Polke. Fotografien 1964-2000, 2006); J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (Sigmar Polke: Photographs 1968-1972, 2007); Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg (Sigmar Polke. Wir Kleinbürger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen. Die 1970er Jahre, 2009-2010); and the Musée de Grenoble (2013-2014). The comprehensive retrospective Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010 was held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate Modern, London, and Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2014-2015). In 2018, Sigmar Polke: Photographs 70-80 was presented at the Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany, and In Focus: Sigmar Polke in the Lambrecht-Collection was on view at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen, Germany, in 2018-2019. Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, Croatia, presented Sigmar Polke – Music from an Unknown Source in 2019. A solo exhibition of the artist’s work is currently on view at Städtische Galerie Karlsruhe, Germany through June 12, 2022. 

During his lifetime, Polke was included in numerous international biennales, including documenta, the Bienal de São Paulo, and the Venice Biennale, and received a number of awards, including the Golden Lion for his solo presentation at the West German Pavilion in 1986 at the Venice Biennale, the Erasmus Prize (1994), the Carnegie Prize (1995), the Praemium Imperiale (2002), and the Roswitha Haftmann-Preis (2010), among others. In addition to Galerie René Block, Galerie Schmela, Galerie Heiner Friedrich, and Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Polke showed regularly at Galerie BAMA, Paris, Galerie Toni Gerber, Bern, and Michael Werner Gallery, Berlin and New York. 

Polke’s work is included in the permanent collections of major museums around the world, including Art Institute of Chicago; The Broad, Los Angeles; Centre Georges Pompidou - Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; and Tate, London, among others.

The Estate of Sigmar Polke is exclusively represented by David Zwirner. In May 2016, the gallery presented its first exhibition of the artist's work at the 537 West 20th Street location in New York; the show was organized in collaboration with the Estate of Sigmar Polke and curated by Vicente Todolí.

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