Sigmar Polke, the radical subject of a new Tate Modern retrospective, was Dusseldorf's answer to Roy Lichtenstein, finds Alastair Sooke

By Alastair Sooke

"Witty. Sexy. Gimmicky. Glamorous. Big business.” That is how the British artist Richard Hamilton defined Pop art in a letter written in 1957. Most gallery-goers today would understand exactly what he meant: think of Warhol’s sexy visions of Marilyn and his glamorous portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, or Lichtenstein’s gimmicky yet witty comic-book paintings, which parody warfare and gender stereotypes. As for “big business”, one only has to look at the prices achieved by canonical Pop artists in recent years: last November, Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963) sold for a record-breaking $105million (£65.5 million) at auction in America.
But the history of Pop art is not as familiar as you might think. Pop is often understood as a US phenomenon. We perceive it as an art form intimately bound up with the rampant consumer culture that emerged across the Atlantic in the aftermath of the Second World War. Even the Britons, including Hamilton, who supposedly anticipated by a decade the developments of Pop art in New York and Los Angeles in the early Sixties were responding with the enthusiasm of devotees to totems of American capitalism: Chrysler cars and Coke bottles, Playboy pin-ups and Minnie Mouse.
More recently, though, art historians have been investigating less-known aspects of Pop, such as the roles played by forgotten but important female artists – the likes of Rosalyn Drexler, Pauline Boty and Evelyne Axell. Next autumn, Tate Modern will mount a revelatory exhibition called The World Goes Pop, focusing on how the “spirit of Pop” flourished internationally, in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Before that, though, another exhibition at the Tate, a full-scale retrospective for the maverick German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010), offers a reminder that Pop art was not an exclusively Anglo-American affair. Polke belonged to a generation of German artists, including his more famous contemporary Gerhard Richter, who launched their careers in Düsseldorf in the early Sixties with a movement known as “Capitalist Realism” – essentially, a Teutonic version of Pop.
Unlike Richter, a meticulous painter whose work has long enjoyed success on the art market, Polke is a tricky artist to characterise. Like Richter, he is known primarily as a painter, but his work is irrepressibly experimental and draws upon a bewildering jumble of inspirations, from philosophy and mineralogy to alchemy and hallucinogenic drugs.
What unifies his output is best described as a kind of anarchic and satirical attitude or world view, a tongue-in-cheek, subversive spirit that has little time for stuffy hierarchies or bourgeois conventions. Along with the slightly younger Martin Kippenberger, Polke is arguably the most avant-garde figure in post-war German art.
Born in the Lower Silesia town of Oels, Polke grew up in the Soviet zone of occupation before his family migrated to the West German city of Düsseldorf in 1953. Following an apprenticeship to a glass-painter when he was 18, he enrolled in 1961 at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie, where he met Richter, a fellow student, as well as an artist called Konrad Lueg, who later became the art dealer Konrad Fischer.
Two years later, inspired by examples of the new American Pop art that they had encountered in shows and magazines, the trio collaborated together with a fourth artist, Manfred Kuttner, on an exhibition in the window of an abandoned shop in Düsseldorf. Richter described it at the time as the “first exhibition of 'German Pop Art’. Little documentation of the show has survived, but supposedly Lueg took a branded tub of washing powder and turned it upside down, while Polke strung together several magazines and hung them up like a mobile sculpture.
Within a few months, Richter and Lueg had also staged a celebrated “happening” called “A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism” inside a furniture showroom in Düsseldorf. As well as presenting their own works, the pair displayed furniture on plinths, a papier mâché figure of John F Kennedy and offered themselves as living artworks. German Pop was up and running.
On the face of it, Capitalist Realism shares many affinities with American Pop. Just as Lichtenstein made a series of paintings of solitary objects, including a sponge, a tyre, a portable radio and a ball of twine, so Richter concentrated on banal, everyday things such as a table and a roll of lavatory paper. Like Warhol, he drew upon the mass-produced, commercial imagery of advertising, as in his paintings Folding Dryer (1962) and Ferrari (1964).
So did Polke. As well as early drawings in ballpoint pen of a bar of soap and folded shirts, he made paintings of socks, more folded shirts, a broken-off bar of partially unwrapped chocolate, and biscuits – all of them hijacking the visual strategies of advertising.
Comparisons between the Americans and their German contemporaries are often irresistible. In 1963, for instance, Lichtenstein created Hot Dog with Mustard. That same year, Polke produced The Sausage Eater, in which an eyeless, disembodied head in profile consumes a serpentine string of brown frankfurters.
Around the time that Lichtenstein became interested in replicating coloured patterns of so-called “Ben-Day dots”, which allowed publishers to reproduce pictures mechanically, Polke also began investigating commercial printing techniques. His Rasterbilder (“Screened Paintings”), which he began in 1963, borrowed the “raster” dots of halftone newspaper illustrations. These would become some of his best-known images, inevitably leading to talk about his distinctive “Polke dots”.
Yet for all the superficial similarities between what was happening in New York and Düsseldorf in the early Sixties, there are also some significant differences. According to Mark Godfrey, who has curated Tate’s forthcoming retrospective, the way that Lichtenstein and Polke each used dots is one of them.
“Polke first paints dots with the rubber on the back of a pencil, dipping it in ink, dotting it down,” he explains. “Later, he uses a screen. But when you look closely at them, they are very messy. When you look at Lichtenstein’s dots, they are pristine, sharp-edged. Lichtenstein’s work in those years is technically very proficient, whereas Polke’s looks casual: the perspective is wrong, the paint thickness varies, or the background drips into the foreground. There’s an amusing, clunky quality to it.”
Why did Polke want to make deliberate mistakes? To answer that, it is important to understand the context of the historical moment in which he grew up. As Godfrey explains, living in West Germany did not offer the same experience as capitalist America during that era.
“To be a consumer in America in the Sixties,” he says, “you just go and buy your Coke cans. But as a young artist in his 20s who was still pretty poor, Polke experienced consumer culture as objects of desire he couldn’t have. Warhol and Lichtenstein were surrounded by a glut of things, but in West Germany they were still living in austere times.”
“When I came to the West, I saw many, many things for the first time,” Polke once recalled. “But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn’t really heaven.”
The style of his early work was also linked to the spectre of the Second World War and the toxic legacy of Nazism. “Polke was growing up after a moment when Germany had been obsessed with purity, with clarity, with the Nazi idea of a single truth – the truth of the Führer and Nazi policy,” explains Godfrey. “His critique of that was always to think about images in terms of their dissolution or corruption.” It has been suggested that his interest in swirls, squiggles and organic, kidney-shaped forms was a reaction against the angularity of the swastika and Nazi design.
German Pop is, says Godfrey, “often more political, to do with a society rebuilding itself. There was a more difficult set of circumstances that the Germans had to deal with when they were making these images of everyday things. Young German artists at the beginning of the Sixties were aware that their parents and people in authority had been part of a generation impacted upon by Nazism. The world around them was trying to forget the past – but their inquiring minds preferred to trouble that repression.”
One way that Polke interrogated the state of German society was through his use of humour and satire. His painting of socks, for instance, is deliberately humdrum and ironic. In The Sausage Eater, the endless frankfurters suggest both gluttony and coercion, as though the eyeless figure is being force-fed. “Sparkling Wine for Everyone”, a crude, watercolour-and-ballpoint doodle that punctures the hollow promises of prosperity uttered by West Germany’s leaders, looks like it could have come from the contemporary artist David Shrigley.
Why Can’t I Stop Smoking? (1964) adopts a similar tone. “You’ve got this man who looks a bit like [Mad Men’s] Donald Draper at the beginning of the Sixties,” says Godfrey, “but his eyes aren’t filled in. The sketchiness of the way he’s drawn: you’d never find that in American Pop.”
 He pauses. “I’d be hard-pressed to think of any point where Polke was merely a follower of American Pop art,” he says, “because his paintings of everyday things have a humour and a charm to them that you don’t often see in American Pop at that point. Some of the work may seem puerile, but it was puerile in a context where that was thoughtful and important, because one had to ask serious questions about the older generation. Polke’s clowning was always motivated by something deeply serious.”