Ten things you didn't know about Sigmar Polke

Published 6 October 2014

Opium dens, meteorite dust, alchemy and potatoes – we dig up ten eye-opening facts about the German artist ahead of his landmark Tate exhibition.

1. By the time he was 13 he had been exiled from two countries

Polke was born in Lower Silesia (part of modern-day Poland) in 1941, and fled to East Germany with his family during the 1945 expulsion of Germans. In 1953, his family was exiled again, this time escaping East Germany for Berlin. He arrived in West Germany by train, having pretended to sleep through the entire journey.

2. In his early career he created a series of works from liverwurst and potato

Polke's food art phase reached its peak in his 1967 work Potato House, a flat-pack installation built entirely from potatoes and liver sausage.

3. One of those works was called 'Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another'

Also known as 'Potato Machine', the work was created from a wooden bar stool, a length of wire, and two potatoes rigged up to a switch mechanism. Journalist Jerry Saltz described the work as like 'a lost testicle perpetually circling its mate'.

4. He once produced a photo of himself taking a bath with Gerhard Richter

The print was created in protest at the cramped lodgings the artists were housed in while attending an exhibition opening. Polke and Richter collaborated on several works, including a 'living sculpture' piece in 1963 in which the two men posed in armchairs in the display of a Düsseldorf shop-front.

5. He spent a lot of time in opium dens

Polke spend much of the 1970s travelling the world and taking a dizzying variety of hallucinogenic drugs, from LSD to psychedelic mushrooms. He was a particularly frequent visitor to opium dens in Pakistan, documenting his visits through a series of photographs taken in 1974.

6. He damaged his eyesight painting his own version of Roy Lichtenstein's spots

Formally, Polke's version were known as raster dots (from the German for screen), but he informally referred to them as 'Polke dots'. The strain of painting tiny dots on a canvas held close to his face for prolonged periods of time aggravated the artist's short-sightedness.

7. He once sent a journalist a postcard of himself doing a Nazi goose-step

The art journalist Adrian Searle had flown to Cologne to interview Polke at his studio, only to discover that the building had been abandoned for weeks. On his return to Britain, Searle received the postcard from the artist – with the word 'Sorry' scribbled on the back.

8. He once relieved himself on an art collector

Polke was a notoriously difficult individual, temperamental and prone to quixotic outbursts. According to one tale, he once sneaked up behind a collector who was attending a private visit to Polke's studio and urinated on the back of his coat.

9. He kept a lead box full of radioactive uranium in his studio

Polke used the radioactive material to develop photographs, giving the prints a distinctive pink hue. Other exotic materials used by Polke include grains of meteorite, candle smoke and lavendar oil.

10. His last major project was a set of stained-glass windows for the Grossmünster cathedral in Zurich

It was a fitting end to his career, which began with a glass-making apprenticeship in Düsseldorf-Kaiserwerth. Polke incorporated a number of alchemical materials into the stained glass, including cinnabar, alabaster, malachite and cobalt, which he regarded as 'poetic intensifications of the materia of the universe'.

Sigmar Polke: Alibis is at Tate Modern from 9 October 2014 until 8 February 2015. Save 50% with a National Art Pass.

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