Sigmar Polke: Artist whose work confronted Germany's post-war demons

In 1964 the German artist Gerhard Richter gave an interview to a critic called John Anthony Thwaites in which he made a number of surprising revelations; among them, that his pictures had been used to torture inmates in concentration camps and had, by their sheer power, killed off Joseph Stalin.

As it turned out, the "interview" had been made up by Richter's younger rival and sometime collaborator, Sigmar Polke. It was, in various ways, typical of Polke, who has died of lung cancer at the age of 69.

Of the trio of painters – Polke, Richter and Anselm Kiefer – who came to dominate the art scene in Düsseldorf and Cologne in the 1960s, it was the first whose story was the most German. Polke was born at the height of the Second World War in what was then the German town of Oels, in Lower Silesia. The province had been annexed by Prussia a century earlier; under Hitler its Jewish population was decimated, many dying in the camp at nearby Oswiecim, then known as Auschwitz. In 1945, Silesia was annexed by the Soviets and Polke's family fled westward, first to Thuringia in East Germany and then, in 1953, to the Rhineland and the West. In their various exiles, they lost everything. If the jokes about Stalin and concentration camps in his spoof Richter interview seemed in poor taste, then no one risked greater offence than Sigmar Polke himself.

The so-called Thwaites interview was revelatory in other ways, too. In 1964, Polke was studying at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie under that giant of post-war German art, Joseph Beuys. The recent spectre of National Socialism had left young Germans with a fear of demagoguery, yet the country's academic system, with its rigid hierarchies and cults of personality, still reeked of it. Beuys' way around this was to play Teutonism at its own game, embroidering the story of his wartime heroics and setting himself up as a felt-hatted Herr Professor. Only by aping German-ness could it be defused: in 1969 another Beuys student, Anselm Kiefer, had himself photographed in front of European monuments giving the Sieg Heil salute. Polke's Richter interview, too, spanned its own German myths, of national power and, more troublingly, of feigned national regret.

Although Polke would be best known as a painter, his student work was of its day in playing around with concepts and happenings. One early piece was a portable, cage-like structure called Potato House, its titular tubers topped up with each new showing. By the early 1960s, he and Richter, both refugees from East Germany, had invented a school of their own called Capitalist Realism, a name which cocked a snook at Soviet Socialist Realism while drawing heavily on American Pop Art. Unlike American Pop, though, Polke and Richter's concerned itself with the everyday and banal. Where artists such as Andy Warhol borrowed the language of advertising to hymn film stars and cans of Coke, Polke favoured subjects of an almost Magritte-like ordinariness. Socks were a favourite, as were plastic bowls, sausages and, predictably, potatoes.

His style rejected American consumerism even as it appeared to embrace it. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Polke's paintings and prints appropriated the comic-book Benday dots used by the American Pop painter Roy Lichtenstein. Where Lichtenstein's pixels were sharp-edged and picture perfect, though, Polke's – known, inevitably, as "Polke Dots" – were blobby and smudged. They looked like the reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction, which is what they were.

There was a strong element of moral anxiety in this. In a quite un-American way, Polke's style concerned itself not just with the here and now but with historical precedent, with its own derivations and borrowings. His first training, pre-Kunstakademie, had been as a painter of glass, and it is tempting to see this apprenticeship as underpinning the story of his art. Where a Warhol painting might consist of a single image applied to a canvas in the single screening of a single colour, Polke's work sought out its answers in complexity. Like paint laid on glass, his images were always multi-layered, meant both to be looked at and looked through.

A prime example of this is his 1982 canvas Paganini. Monumental in scale, this painting revels in its own complexity. Like the work of Kiefer, it is self-consciously bookish: to get what Paganini is about, we have to bring an impossibly broad frame of reference to it. In terms of art history, too, the image is defiantly complex. It has the feel of a worked-up engraving – a Dürer, say – but its handling of paint is entirely modern. In the middle ground, a dying man lies in bed while a devil-jester juggles with skulls against a background of abstracted swastikas.

If Paganini has a history that is local and topical – a modern German history – its horror is universal. The real fear in this virtuosic work is of its own virtuosity. Born in a Germany cursed by Hitler's genius and raised in another ruled by raw capitalism, Polke seems appalled by his masterpiece's masterliness. A decade later, he produced another work called The Three Lies of Painting which warned viewers of the dangers of its own genius even as it seduced them with it. Both works – all of Polke's work – are haunted by an equation between cleverness and deceit, most pressingly his own.

This fear may have accounted for his vexed relationship with the art world. While critics and dealers wrongly saw Polke's moral complexity as a form of postmodern wit, he saw them as gullible. His studiedly cavalier attitude to the pricing of his work was meant, at least in part, to make would-be buyers ponder its real worth. One 1980s collector maintained that Polke hit on his prices by doubling whatever his age happened to be at the time and adding three noughts to the result. It is possible that he did. By 2007, this chance to tease had been taken out of his hands. One early work, The Beach, re-sold at Christie's for $5m that year, and Polke joined Richter, Kiefer and Georg Baselitz as German stars in the auction-house firmament.

For his own part, he continued to live simply, holed up in Cologne with his books, children and a succession of wives, eschewing the rock-star life of artists such as Beuys and Warhol. That this reclusiveness merely made his work more desirable to collectors was a source of grim amusement to Polke. To the end, he barred visitors from his studio, left his telephone unanswered and refused to give interviews. One of the few on record is the one he gave in 1964, purportedly of another artist, and under the assumed name of Thwaites.

Sigmar Polke, artist: born Oels, Lower Silesia, Germany (now Olesnicka, Poland) 13 February 1941; married three times, lastly to Augustina von Nagel (one son and one daughter by his first marriage); died Cologne 10 June 2010.

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