During the 1960s, while studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Sigmar Polke became deeply interested in the issues of society’s growing consumer culture and media oversaturation. Unlike the American Pop artists who shared these concerns, Polke made direct political references in his work. In Rasterzeichnung (Porträt Lee Harvey Oswald) (1963), the profile head of a male figure is made up of a series of dots, similar to the Ben-Day dots used in commercial printing and famously adopted by the American artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997). If not for the subtitle, the subject of Polke’s work would likely be unrecognized by viewers. It is Lee Harvey Oswald, the sniper who shot and killed U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The gruesome assassination was carried out as Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were riding in a presidential motorcade through Dallas, Texas, as bystanders looked on in horror. The news coverage that followed marked the country’s first use of televised live broadcasts with no commercial interruptions.
Although Polke borrowed the image from a magazine, he manipulated it by adding a line across Oswald’s neck, ending it in a large ink spot—alluding to Oswald’s own assassination by Jack Ruby, an event that was unexpectedly captured on live television. Although the style of Rasterzeichnung (Porträt Lee Harvey Oswald) mimics a process once used to print illustrations in magazines and newspapers, Polke’s image was not printed. Instead, he made his enlargement of the magazine photograph by dipping a pencil eraser into black ink and pressing each dot onto the paper, sometimes blending one over the other.
Sigmar Polke’s pop-art-inspired body of work eschews categorization and a signature style, yet irony and contradiction remain its constants. Polke first trained as a glass painter in Düsseldorf from 1959 to 1961, then studied under Karl Otto Götz (b. 1914) and Gerhard Höhme (1920–1989) at the Staatliche Kunstakademie (State Academy of Fine Arts) Düsseldorf until 1967. In 1963 he co-founded the pop-inspired artist movement Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism)) with Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Konrad Lueg (1939–1996, a.k.a. Konrad Fischer), and Manfred Kuttner (b. 1937). In his paintings, Polke imitated the Ben-Day dots of earlier print technology, rendering images derived from photography or advertising as blurred and semi-abstract. He also preferred experimental techniques and unusual combinations of materials, for example in his “Fabric Pictures,” in which he used commercially printed fabrics as background patterns for gestures and motifs taken from earlier or contemporary art. He layered images, experimented with embossing, and created highly tactile surfaces. Polke taught at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (University of Fine Arts) in Hamburg for several years and received many prizes, including the Golden Lion for Painting at the 1986 Venice Biennale and the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale in 2002.