Uranografien, or autoradiographs of uranium samples.53 This is a link back to the early days of radiation enthusiasm.

Starting in the 1960s and throughout his career, Sigmar Polke showed an interest in radiation. His library contains books from the period of when the German environmental movement and Green Party took off, such as the volume Strahlung in Umwelt, Medizin und Technik (Radiation in the Environment, Medicine and Technology; 1983), but also earlier literature that is more purely technical or historical in nature, ranging from an introduction to X-rays dating to 1930 via Hermann Römpp’s Atom-Lexicon (1945) to Hellmut Droscha’s Kernreaktoren (Nuclear Reactors; 1958) and Franz Kirchheimer’s Das Uran und seine Geschichte (Uranium and Its History; 1963). Uranium in particular held a fascination for Polke. His collection contains example of “Uranium Glass,” items made from glass containing uranium, which are fluorescent under UV light). And from 1982 to 2000, he produced several series of Uranografien, or autoradiographs of uranium samples.This is a link back to the early days of radiation enthusiasm.

When seen in conjunction with Polke paintings such as Höhere Wesen befahlen: Rechte obere Ecke schwarz malen! (Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!; 1969), with its implication that the abstract composition was determined by “higher beings” using the artist as medium, Polke’s take on autoradiography also seems to revive the spiritualist and occultist overtones which the discovery of radioactivity had for Kandinsky—a theosophist with a firm belief in auras and “thought-forms.” At the same time, Polke’s Uranografien take their place in the mythology of Polke as “alchemist” handling and exposing himself (and perhaps also the viewers) to dangerous and toxic materials. The index of radiation here becomes a sign for the grandeur of the artist-magus. An autoradiograph made in a scientific setting in 1910, or at Bikini Atoll after Operation Crossroads, can have completely a different meaning than Polke’s technically similar ones (even though Polke applied color filters to get more varied effects).