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Sigmar Polke: Unser Kundendienst !

Sigmar Polke
intro image

Unser Kundendienst!
lacquer, acrylic, printed fabric, gloves
70 7/8 x 59 inches (180 x 150 cm)

signed, verso on stretcher: “S.P.OLKE”s



François and Ninon Robelin, Paris (acquired directly from the artist, 1985)
Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Saint-Étienne Métropole, Saint-Étienne (on long-term deposit, 1994-2019)
Robelin Family Collection, Pouilly-les-Nonains, France

Galerie BAMA, Paris. Sigmar Polke (May – June 1985)
Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Saint-Étienne Métropole, Saint-Étienne. La Collection François et Ninon Robelin (22 January – 23 April 1995). Catalogue, cover (detail), no. 175, illustrated in color, p. 223.
Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble, France. Sigmar Polke (9 November 2013 – 2 February 2014).
Catalogue, illustrated in color, p. 86.
MAMC+, Saint-Étienne. Around the Robelin Collection: Works from the 1960-1970 Collection 
(14 February – 27 December 2015)

“We cannot rely on good pictures being painted some day. We must take things into our own hands now!”

— Sigmar Polke

install view



And into his own hands this picture went. Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) is widely recognized for making an art from all that is unknowable, building images from gathered fragments, and delighting in the illusionary universe of these constructions.

In Unser Kundendienst! (“Our customer service!”) (1985), it is the artist whose gloved hands grip the canvas, flashing its emblazoned message: “When you buy a new mattress, we’ll take the old one to the trash.” But for this painting to actually wind up in the garbage bin would be a nearly impossible event. To Polke the art world’s tendency towards excess was predicated on the consumption of the new and the disposal of the unsalable; he holds up Unser Kundendienst! to remind the viewer of this irrefutable fact.


Das Palmen-Bild [The Palm Painting]
Dispersion paint on patterned fabric
36 x 29 11/16 inches (91.5 x 75.4 cm)
Private collection

Menschenpalme [Men Palm Tree] from Palmenserie [Palm Tree Series] from…..Höhere Wesen befehlen […..Higher Beings Ordain]
1966, published 1968
One from a portfolio of 14 photolithographs,
plate: 8 3/4 x 6 5/16” (22.2 x 16.1 cm); sheet: 11 7/16 x 8 1/4” (29 x 20.9 cm)
Publisher: Edition René Block, Berlin. Printer: Zahl, Berlin.
Edition of 50
Rolf Hagel, Essen

In 1964, Polke began using commercial fabrics for his paintings, buying colorful decorator fabrics at markets and department stores and stockpiling them in huge mounds in his studio as possible supports for future works. The fabrics that Polke chose were firmly rooted in 1950s design, both in their muted palette and their simple stripes, checks, and figurative motifs. Polke’s fabrics bring us into the sphere of consumption and the reality of a working-class existence in the FRG of the 1950s, in which one was completely subject to the mythology of the West German economic miracle.

In a 1966 interview, Polke uses the term Rapport to describe his fabrics, a technical term employed by textile designers and manufacturers to refer to a repeating pattern in textile. Christine Mehring speculates that Polke’s use of Rapport instead of Dekostoff, meaning ‘decorative fabric’, suggests he chose his fabric—and by extension the other materials that were subject to his appropriation, quotation, and parody—“with expertise, care, and an eye for iconographic, formal, material, and historical nuance” [1]. Das Palmen-Bild [The Palm Painting] (1964) is the earliest example of this technique.

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Die Schere [Scissors]
Acrylic, iron mica on upholstery fabric
290 x 290 cm
Private collection


It is the early 1980s that mark a decisive phase in Polke’s career. Having spent the 1970s engaged in photography, extensive travel, and wide-ranging experimentation with drugs, Polke embarks on a return to painting facilitated by his total immersion in the very material of his paintings, experimenting with minerals, metals, lacquers, resins, and varnishes and stitching together larger and increasingly multiple swaths of fabric, thus redefining his earlier use of textile. By applying synthetic materials such as acrylic resins to his surfaces, Polke would turn relatively opaque textiles translucent, allowing Polke to play on the transparencies and opacities of the support.

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Ein Bild sollte nicht grösser sein als ein Bett [A Painting Should Not Be Bigger than a Bed]
Acrylic on fabric
180 x 150 cm
Collection Frac Bourgogne



The 2013 exhibition Sigmar Polke at Musée de Grenoble and the accompanying catalogue devote themselves specifically to this period of Polke’s oeuvre. The exhibition featured two works on fabric from 1985; Unser Kundendienst! and Ein Bild sollte nicht grösser sein als ein Bett, which translates to a bit of humorous advice from Polke: “A painting should not be bigger than bed.” These works as a pair are highly emblematic of Polke’s activities in the eighties. In contrast to the seventies, when abstraction, reduction, and conceptual rigor dominate his practice, by 1985 Polke is interrogating the aesthetic claims of traditional art, the burgeoning market’s role as arbiter of value and status, and the fermenting of a cultural consumerism that disorients its participants.

“The 1980s ushered in a new period, a period of maturity for [Polke] who, rich with past experiences...and at the height of his powers as a painter, synthesized prior explorations and conferred a new dimension on his output. This was a flamboyant period, marked by an impressive series of magisterial paintings that were the locus of the wildest associations, and that offered a veritable lesson in painting, intelligence, freedom, and humor.”

— Guy Tosatto [2]

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Sigmar Polke and Ninon Robelin. Pouilly-les-Nonains, France, 1979.

Although Polke began showing his work in Germany in the mid-1960s, when he was still a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the first real support for his work outside of Germany and Switzerland came only in 1979, when Galerie BAMA, Paris made the first of several shows over the course of the next decade. BAMA was the project of French collectors François and Ninon Robelin and their connection to Polke was forged through an essential community of artists surrounding Daniel Spoerri’s Düsseldorf restaurant, including Dieter Roth, Robert Filliou, George Brecht, Dorothé Iannone, and Erik Dietman. Not all showed at BAMA, but most would eventually have important works in the Robelin Collection, which eventually became a major donation to the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Saint-Étienne Métropole. In Ninon Robelin, Polke found an avid supporter already deeply interested in artists who tended to thumb their noses are norms and established histories and who possessed strong interests in art driven by language and material. Polke was a perfect fit for BAMA.

Unser Kundendienst! was in Polke’s third show at BAMA in 1985, and was featured ten years later on the cover of the Robelin collection catalogue for their donation to the Saint-Étienne museum. BAMA would later evolve to become Galerie Crousel-Robelin/BAMA, where Polke continued to show, most notably with exhibitions in 1988 and 1990 of the twenty-two works that Polke painted on the occasion of the bicentenary of the French Revolution. Throughout all these years several prominent French museums acquired significant works.

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Synthetic polymer paint on patterned fabric mounted on felt with wooden dowel
overall: 12’ 3” x 10’ 3 1/2” (373.5 x 314 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Polke’s work was rarely seen in the U.S. until the 1980s, though both Julian Schnabel, who Polke met in 1974, and John Baldessari, who regularly provided his CalArts students with information on European artists that was otherwise difficult to find at the time, were more appreciative of Polke at an earlier date. By the 1980s, several major international exhibitions pushed American audiences to integrate European painting into their view of contemporary art, and the American market began to pay attention to a generation of German painters that included Polke, Richter, Baselitz, Imendorff, and Penck. Polke’s first solo exhibition in New York was in 1982 at the Holly Solomon Gallery, where he showed three large paintings from 1972 that were not stretched across traditional frames, but instead hung across poles and that combined printed fabrics, painterly marks, and popular culture imagery [3]. Polke returned to New York in 1984 to show at Marian Goodman and again in 1985 to show at Mary Boone. With New York at the center of the heated market for contemporary art, it is perhaps no surprise that Polke painted Unser Kundendienst! in 1985, for by then he had seen and experienced first-hand the intense American market that seemed to strive to meld art and commerce.

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Die Lebenden stinken und die Toten sind nicht anwesend [The Living Stink and the Dead Are Not Present]
Acrylic on patterned fabric
9’ 2 1/4” x 11’ 9 3/4” (280 x 360 cm)
Private collection



In 2014, following the exhibition in Grenoble, the Museum of Modern Art brought together one of the most complete overviews of Polke’s work that any museum has attempted. Sanford Schwartz, in his review of the exhibition catalogue, wished that the exhibition’s inclusiveness had been more accommodating to Polke’s works on fabric, “that is to say, pictures that date largely from the 1980s in which Polke the assured placer of forms, the sensuous colorist, the sometime quoter of this or that fragment from a newspaper or old book, and the manipulator of different kinds of paint surfaces can all be seen at once” [4]. There is a generative power and pleasure to be found in Polke’s particular brand of kitsch and lowbrow sentimentality; as Schwartz assesses, the artist’s pleasingly uninsistent feeling for worn and lowly items and the everyday lend an unobtrusive warmth to his work [5].

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Die Dinge sehen wie sie sind [Seeing Things as They Are]
Synthetic resin and lacquer on polyester
9’ 10 1/8” x 7’ 4 9/16” (300 x 225 cm)
Städtische Galerie Karlsruhe, Sammlung Garnatz





The brilliance of Unser Kundendienst! lies in the way that Polke structures his critique on the changing tastes of art and commerce. In contrast to American Pop Art, which glorified the triviality of the consumer world in high gloss and large format [6], Polke instills in Unser Kundendienst! the blatant contradictions between high culture and mass culture, between the rigidity of high-modernist abstraction and the luscious, mutable expanse of the artist’s own practice.

“Sigmar has not been easy to absorb into peoples’ living rooms and, frankly, I don’t know if that would have bothered him so much...I don’t think he really believed great art was immediately digestible. In his work you see this incredible span of drop-dead beauty and the poisonous...”

— Kathy Halbreich [7]

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Rainer Speck and Sigmar Polke shaking hands through Gangster (1988), as illustrated in
Sigmar Polke. Works & Days (Cologne: DuMont Verlag, 2005).








The brilliance of Unser Kundendienst ! lies in the way that Polke structures his critique on the changing tastes of art and commerce. In contrast to American Pop Art, which glorified the triviality of the consumer world in high gloss and large format [8], Polke instills in Unser Kundendienst ! the blatant contradictions between high culture and mass culture, between the rigidity of high-modernist abstraction and the luscious, mutable expanse of the artist’s own practice.

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Unser Kundendienst!
lacquer, acrylic, printed fabric, gloves
70 7/8 x 59 inches (180 x 150 cm)

signed, verso on stretcher: “S.P.OLKE”s


The integration of ready-made elements in Unser Kundendienst! —the work gloves and the two fabrics that constitute the support—endow the painting with an additional semantic register [8]. There are many, even contradictory implications of Polke’s appropriation practice: lack of freedom, possible insight, irony, laziness, incapability, stupidity, creative freedom, and interpretive act [9]. The gloves especially disclose the physical form of the body more than any of his works on fabric. Polke hung his fabrics from wooden dowels, revealed their frames behind transparent layers, and unfurled excess fabric to drape from either, or both sides of the support. None of these examples possess the same sculptural and material vocabulary as the gloves do in Unser Kundendienst!

There are endless examples of what it means to hold, to carry, to caress, to grip and how to visually represent such gestures. For all its illusions, Unser Kundendienst! has little to do with intimacy, except for an intimacy solely defined by consumptive acts. Despite obvious motifs— the mattress ticking, the stamp that imitates the cover of a mattress company brochure, the resemblance of the fabrics to bedsheets or other household textiles—the materialistic relation between these objects creates distance and discomfort.

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Willich (Polke in Pythonhaut) [Willich (Polke in Python Skin)]
Gelatin silver print
14 1/8 x 9 13/16” (36.5 x 25 cm)
Private collection

The real intimacy of Unser Kundendienst! is to be found in Polke’s living expression of humor, shared with any person who encounters this work. There remains the question of the work’s disclosure of a body. When Bernd Jansen photographs Polke in 1973, Polke is languidly stretching his body into a distinct curve. He is wrapped in the skin of a python, with necklaces and ornaments crossing and draping over his chest. The carpet below him is highly decorative and elaborate in size. Polke’s expression is focused, yet ambivalent.

In his universe, Polke rarely shows himself; he is beholden to showing his work but not his hand. If it is in fact Polke behind the surface of the painting, then the work is addressing not only the consumption of artworks but also of artists themselves. But the sum of the joke and Polke’s mirth in response both hinge on the fact that nothing is there behind the painting; if Unser Kundendienst! is hanging on a wall and shifted from side to side or removed from the wall entirely, all that will be revealed is the wall and its material.

Because the gloves suggest the presence of a body without actually revealing anyone, that absence becomes the most opaque gesture within the painting, towed along by its more legible facets. The joke moves through time, acknowledging its future disposal and replacement with some other, more prescient irony. It is Rapport, a repeating pattern of the same ornament, a retelling of the same story.


— Erin Montanez

“Polke is universal: revolutionary, sensitive and merciless, a man with vision and very human.” 

— Harald Szeeman [10]



[1] Christine Mehring, “Polke’s Patterns,” in Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963—2010, ed. Kathy Halbreich (New York: The Museum of Modern Art 2014), p. 238.
[2] Guy Tosatto, “Foreword,” in Sigmar Polke, ed. Guy Tosatto (Arles: Actes Sud & Musée de Grenoble, 2013), p. 13.
[3] Magnus Schaefer, “Partial View: Sigmar Polke’s Reception in the United States in the 1980s,” in Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963—2010, ed. Kathy Halbreich (New York: The Museum of Modern Art 2014), p. 206-7.
[4] Sanford Schwartz, review of Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010, edited by Kathy Halbreich, The New York Review of Books, June 19, 2014, wildly-inventive-sigmar-polke/.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Anne Erfle, “Phenomenology of Repression: Sigmar Polke’s Images of Germany,” in German Art from Beckmann to Richter: Images of a Divided Country, ed. Eckhart Gillen (Cologne: DuMont, 2003), p. 237.
[7] Charlotte Burns, “The German Miracle: Critics Love Sigmar Polke, but the Market Remains Confused,” Art Agency Partners, 31 January 2017, german-miracle/
[8] Tosatto, p. 10.
[9] Mehring, 238.
[10] Quoted in Klaus Honnef, Contemporary Art (Cologne: Taschen, 1988), p. 78.

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