“In 1962, artists Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke graduated from the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Within a year’s time, they had begun a brief collaboration, known as Kapitalisticher Realismus, responding visually to Postwar German culture as much as the dominating American Pop Art trend. Through the painted reproduction of magazine and newspaper photographs, these two men bonded over a shared belief that art could play a role in the revolutionary activities of the student or youth movement in the Federal Republic of Germany. Together, it became common practice for both artists to ridicule issues of societal import—contemporary politics, the fairly-recent National Socialist history, and a literally divided homeland, as Germany was at that point still separated into four occupation zones, ruled over by their respective foreign officials.
Although the American, British, French and Soviet quarters were independently governed, by 1949 the United States and Soviet Union had emerged as the dominate players in a global conflict, already referred to as the Cold War. Within the time span of five months, the Western-run Federal Republic of Germany and the Eastern-ruled German Democratic Republic were born, divided first by their opposing ideological agendas and later a physical partition (Klaasmeyer 6). As artists who fled the German Democratic Republic in search of artistic freedom, Richter and Polke created art that reflected the political and economic dualities present within Germany in the 1960s: West versus East, Democracy versus Communism, and capitalism versus state-regulated commerce. By demonstrating a rejection of cultural polarity—a condition caused by the ongoing presence of the victorious Allied Powers and the erection of the Berlin wall—these artists warned against the extremism that led to the National Socialist party and instead offered a message of compromise both artistically and politically.” [A. Dapena-Tretter on Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke: Painting the Postwar German Experience]
By the lights of many in the international art world, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke are the leading painters of our day, though it’s hard to find anyone who will declare them equally great. (I’m an exception.) Their careers are intertwined by biography and circumstance. Both are from the former East Germany: Polke, who is sixty-seven, left with his family when he was twelve; Richter, seventy-six, fled, after fitful success in state-run art programs, in 1961, just before the Wall went up. They met at the seminal Düsseldorf Art Academy and, in 1963, collaborated in a brief, trenchant movement that responded to American Pop art with painted imagery drawn from magazine and newspaper ads and photographs, family snapshots, cheap fabric designs, and other desultory sources, which Richter adapted with deadpan gravity and Polke with sardonic élan. A jokey photographic print by Richter, from 1967, shows them sharing a bed in Antwerp. (Their host for a show there had provided scanty accommodations.) They ascended to prominence in the early nineteen-eighties—stunning American art circles, which had been largely oblivious of creative doings in Germany—as twin masters who dramatically expanded the resources and resonances of painting, an art dismissed as moribund by most of that time’s avant-garde. Each has made visually glorious, conceptually seismic pictures. Both live and work in Cologne. But their differences are profound. Richter, reflective and deliberate, is a family man of temperate tastes and orderly habits. His studio is one of two elegant rectilinear buildings—the other is his house—in a large, walled, lushly gardened compound. Polke, restless and impulsive, is an unreconstructed bohemian, inhabiting cluttered expanses in a shabby industrial building. The question “Richter or Polke?” is a common icebreaker, and a self-revealing test, among art students far beyond Germany. To embrace both is to incur a mental civil war, to be of two jealous minds, between incommensurable sensibilities. Temperamentally estranged—Richter’s decorum nettles Polke, whose effrontery exasperates Richter—the men have long been barely on speaking terms. [Peter Schjeldahl on Richter and Polke]
Richter began to copy found black-and-white amateur and photojournalistic snapshots, which he regarded as having ‘no style, no concept, no judgment’. Among these early paintings, the monochromatic Table (1962, private collection) has been cited as the template for much of his subsequent work. The image of a designer table was copied directly from an advertisement in the Italian interiors magazine Domus and then partially erased with broad, sweeping strokes of paint. The chosen motif can be seen as a reflection on the consumerist culture Richter now found himself living in (a testament
to the post-war Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle), but the overpainting interferes with the illusion of representation and makes plain its status as a painterly construct. The conflicting modes of figural and gestural painting opened the way for Richter’s further exploitation of banal, everyday photographs, as well as the objective examination of pure abstraction, which stressed the physical act of painting itself.
For Sigmar Polke, the example set by American Pop art provided the stimulus for a similar focus on consumer products and appropriated imagery. Yet his faux naïve paintings of goods such as socks, sausages and biscuits displayed a decidedly sardonic overtone that contrasted markedly with Richter’s dispassionate methodology. Polke would also delve more noticeably into the techniques of photomechanical reproduction by recreating the raster-dots used to print halftone images. His adoption of the ‘raster dots’ (similar to the coloured Benday dots mimicked by Lichtenstein) allowed Polke to ‘treat the whole surface in the same way — like Cézanne — and to treat all subjects in the same way: a horse, a woman, an ass, etc’. For his first experiment, Polke selected a newspaper photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald and manually replicated the image’s individual dots by dipping the rubber tip of a pencil into ink and using it as a stamp. This painstaking procedure allowed no space for personal expression or emotion, but the subject was clearly a loaded one: earlier in 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a declaration of solidarity with West Germany in Berlin and was assassinated several months later. Polke was thereby following the quintessential Pop strategy of evoking tension between a ‘hot’ subject and its ‘cool’ delivery. [Faith Chisholm on Richter & Polke]