Rub-a-dub-dub, two art titans in a tub. The seldom seen photos, like ‘Taking a bath together’ (1966), and archive material accompanying this survey don’t quite paint a picture of two of Germany’s most respected artists as the Morcambe and Wise of art but they do reveal how closely the pair worked together at the start of their careers. And the careers of Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) and Gerhard Richter (born 1932) set the course of contemporary European painting over the past half century.
As founders of ‘capitalist realism’ in 1963, they hatched a movement that would quickly become a European corrective to US pop art, mining their country’s troubled history to parody both capitalism and communism, while tackling the thorny issue of authorship that would obsess every painter in their wake. Their work first gained a wide audience in London at the Royal Academy’s legendary 1981 exhibition ‘A New Spirit in Painting’, a show mentioned in hushed, reverent tones by anyone lucky enough to have seen it. To see Polke and Richter larking about in black and white shots humanises these demi-gods in a way that no other London show of their work has done before. You believe Richter entirely when he says that he was closer to Polke in the 1960s than he had ever been to anyone.
The show, in part a recreation of their renowned 1966 two-man exhibition in at Galerie h in Hanover, tightly enmeshes their art with an initial flurry of stylistically distinct but equally sardonic takes on pop. Their distinct personalities (Richter a purveyor of cool realist blurs and squeegeed abstract splurges; Polke a slippery magician wilfully unfaithful to any single subject or style) quickly take over, though, leading you along divergent but equally thrilling paths.
Polke’s freestanding two-sided paintings from the mid-1980s capture him at his capricious best, while for Richter in über elegant mode, look no further than ‘Kerze’ (1982), one of his classic candle paintings. Its masterpiece quota may be low, but the show immerses you in one of the most fruitful art dialogues of the twentieth century. It also acts as an appetite whetter for Tate Modern’s forthcoming Polke retrospective, which is currently being showered with five star reviews at MOMA in New York.