15 Apr 2015 • Art
Head to Michael Werner Gallery, New York, for Silver Paintings by Sigmar Polke. This presentation is the first time since their debut, in 1990, that the Silver Paintings have been exhibited. The exhibition offers the opportunity to experience a rarely-seen body of experimental works by one of the most important artists of the post-war period.
The transformative potential of materials is a key concept within the broad range of Sigmar Polke’s prodigious output and is traceable to the artist’s early apprenticeship to a Düsseldorf glass painter. Mastery of the art of painted or stained glass requires an understanding as much of ephemeral light as of material pigments and supports; its study instilled in the young Polke a particular sensitivity to these qualities, as is made clear by the radical upending of painterly conventions in his mature work. The alchemical urge was first manifest in Polke’s photographic works of the late 1960s and 1970s, a period when he briefly abandoned traditional painting techniques to explore film, still photography and darkroom chemistry. His experiments during this time greatly informed the paintings he would undertake in the following decade and beyond. By the early 1980s Polke had begun to incorporate unconventional – at times toxic and volatile – materials into his practice: arsenic, cinnabar, meteor dust, amber, gold, powdered metals, natural and synthetic lacquers and resins, and pure Tyrian purple, an ancient dye obtained from snails, are among the bewildering array of substances with which he experimented.
Polke was fascinated as much by the immediate optical effects of such materials as for their unpredictably and mutability over time. His contribution to the Venice Biennale of 1986, for example, comprised painting directly on the walls with various chemical substances whose color and clarity changed according to the temperature and humidity in the room. Five monumental canvases from this same time, The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible, also involve the use of pigments and chemistry that alter with exposure to light and air, effectively making the painting a living, breathing organism.
The paintings presented at Michael Werner, all completed in 1990, are collectively known as the Silver Paintings because of the various chemical solutions with which they were created. In these works Polke returned with fresh curiosity and ambition to the photographic chemistry with which he was already familiar from his darkroom experiments of the late 1960s and 1970s. Solutions of silver bromide, silver sulfate and silver nitrate are among the materials used in the making of the Silver Paintings; each has a role in traditional analog photography. Polke exploited the light-sensitivity of these materials, encouraging their characteristic staining and darkening, to create abstract compositions of uncanny ethereality. The Silver Paintings are the culmination of an intense period of material experimentation by Polke and also hint at his later investigation of mirrors, lenses and optics that would result in some of his most ambitious late works.
Sigmar Polke Silver Paintings runs until 27 June at Michael Werner New York.