OF all his work materials, arsenic is particularly precious to Sigmar Polke. So are lavender oil, meteor dust and flakes of gold and cinnabar, all of which he has incorporated into his paintings at one time or another. On a recent rainy afternoon, however, it was a pure, crystallized violet pigment that preoccupied the artist.

Entering what he calls his summer atelier, an oilcloth tent behind his warehouselike home in an industrial neighborhood here, he strode over to three giant paintings. All are intended for the Venice Biennale, which will open on June 10 to hordes of international spectators. Mr. Polke, 65, had applied layer upon layer of multicolored fabrics soaked with lacquer to the canvases, then more lacquer, then pieces of black transparent fabric. With only a scant amount of daylight penetrating the tent, the works had developed an ethereal glow.

“Once I apply the violet pigments with a brush, the surface will become gold,” he said, gazing intently at the 10-by-16-foot paintings resting on wooden sawhorses. “As the light reflects it, it will change color.”

His dealer Gordon VeneKlasen, who represents him with Michael Werner, interjected, “Violet has had mystical properties since the Renaissance, which has always fascinated Sigmar.”
Sorcerer, jester, sage, visionary — Mr. Polke is a hero to many artists working today and a magnet for curators and collectors. Part of the attraction is his relentless quest to ask more of the conventional canvas, applying clumps or droplets of ancient substances or cheap mass-produced fabrics in unusual juxtapositions with sketched figures.

At a moment when no clear artistic movement or style dominates popular tastes, he is known as a master of the unexpected. And while often rooted in ancient mythology, philosophy and chemistry, artists and curators say, his work always seems new. The artist John Baldessari, 75, describes Mr. Polke as an artist’s artist. “Any one move can provide a career for a lesser artist,” he explained.

Collectors and museum directors line up to buy virtually anything Mr. Polke produces these days. When a group of black-and-white drawings — blown-up studies of paint brush strokes and splatters that evoked celestial constellations — went on view in February at a cocktail party at the annual Art Show in Manhattan, they sold out within 10 minutes.

His appeal also lies partly in his unavailability. Unlike Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami, who work hard at maintaining their movie-star allure, Mr. Polke shuns the limelight and guards his privacy. He has been known to go for months without answering his phone, opening his mail or allowing visitors into his studio.

As is always the case with his work, Mr. Polke said, the paintings for the biennale sprang from specific ideas yet evolved in mystical ways as he experimented. “This is the meeting point of ideas and materials coming together,” he said in his German-accented English. “You see what you want, but you have to work with the painting, and the results are always different.”

Altogether, it has taken him two years to apply and dry the poured lacquer surfaces of the seven abstract paintings he has created for the Biennale. Jointly titled “The Axis of Time,” they are to form the heart of the biennale’s signature exhibition in the Italian pavilion, called “Think With the Senses — Feel With the Mind. Art in the Present Tense.”

The show was organized by Robert Storr, the artistic director of the biennale and a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Given that he views the exhibition as “a meeting place of conceptual and perceptual art,” Mr. Storr said, it was a natural choice.

“Polke for a long time has been the most interesting, least predictable of the painters around,” he said by phone from Venice. “He’s almost impossible to get a bite of. People don’t know what to say right off the bat when they see his work. It has a deep kind of shrewdness.”

Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate in London, who has exhibited Mr. Polke’s work since 1995, said that quality of inscrutability played into the fascination. “He turns base metal into gold and base fabrics into great paintings,” he said. “But he is a very difficult artist to get hold of. He makes Richter, who’s complicated, look simple.” (Mr. Polke is often grouped with Gerhard Richter because both came of age and experimented in West Germany in the 1960s.)

Like the paintings themselves, Mr. Polke’s explanations are not always easy to parse. He pointed to a painting in which his fingerprints are visible through a film of deliberately applied dust. “This kind of painting tells many stories,” he said. “The fingerprints, like the fingerprints of a criminal, are something you fear, but at the same time something you want to touch.”

“For me the image isn’t important, it’s the human behavior of wanting to touch it that is,” he said.

Over the hours, he alternated between passionate absorption and detailed, almost scientific explanations of his materials and process, all the while nimbly juggling metaphors, turns of phrase and philosophical concepts. When he begins to apply the violet, he said, the surfaces will turn “gold as though they were drying against the sun.” Then he added: “Or a fragment of the moon. So many phenomenons belong to this kind of painting.”

His absorption in subjects ranging from art history to chemistry to celestial objects is reflected in the array of books and magazines packed into the shelves and stacked on tables in his atelier — from “Masterworks of Rubens” to “Astrology Today” to technical manuals on pigments and minerals. There is also an ancient Chinese gong, an electric keyboard and rolled-up old fabrics and maquettes. Tables that are not covered with books are adorned with curious objects like chunks of crystal and amber. The son of an architect, Mr. Polke was born in 1941 in Oels, Silesia, which was subsumed into East Germany at the end of World War II. He and his family — he is one of eight children — stealthily immigrated by tram to West Germany when he was 12. Having observed the contrast between the Communist east and the nascent affluence of West Germany, he made frequent reference to consumerism in his early work. He describes his education as “bourgeois” and recalls being forced to play the viola in his youth. “My father made us all learn a different instruments — he wanted a family orchestra,” he said.

He was heavily influenced by the old masters. “When I was young I was interested in Renaissance art,” he said over a lunch break in an airy wood-lined restaurant in Cologne. “As a child I copied Dürer drawings and Bruegel. All this for me was very familiar.” Today, he said, he relies on drawing “to fix an idea.”

One of the seven abstract paintings, jointly titled “The Axis of Time,” created by Sigmar Polke for this year’s Venice Biennale.
One of the seven abstract paintings, jointly titled “The Axis of Time,” created by Sigmar Polke for this year’s Venice Biennale.
Credit...Michael Werner Gallery

“Mostly drawings are things I make for myself — I do them in sketchbooks,” he said. “They are mental experiments — private inner thoughts when I’m not sure what will come out.”
Later he studied glass painting, which helps explain his fascination with translucency. (He often pours resin on a canvas and then paints images over it, or douses fabrics with lacquer before sketching patterns on top of them.) Then he studied painting at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf, where Joseph Beuys was teaching.

His career has been a constant stream of experiments. During the 1960s, while a student in Düsseldorf, he joined with Mr. Richter and Konrad Fischer to found the German rejoinder to Pop Art, an ironic style they called Capitalist Realism. He took everyday objects like matchsticks, chocolate bars, sausages and biscuits, and painted them as though they were advertisements, always with a skeptic’s eye.

“American Pop for us was a new world,” he recalled. “It was a time of big change.” Yet the work he produced was quite different from the slick images of, say, Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Whereas many Pop artists relied on silkscreen techniques, Mr. Polke always executed his paintings by hand — reproducing each dot in a blown-up image of something machine-made like a newspaper. (From childhood he has been preoccupied with dots — undoubtedly, he quips, because he has always been “short-sighted.”) The flaws in the end product are as important as what is depicted.

Sometimes the black-and-white dots in his paintings are tiny, a nod to pointillism, it would seem, or the Benday dots of newsprint. Other times they have been large, serving as puddlelike backgrounds for portraits or for still lifes of a mundane table and vase. Some paintings employ even larger dots interspersed with images, like a mixed-media work from 1971 in which he painted characters in milky, semitransparent white on strips of flowered fabrics. It was part of a trippy “Alice in Wonderland” series that many link to his experimentation with drugs.

He stopped painting for a while in the ’70s and turned to the chemistry of photography. He has also delved into film and video and still travels with a camera and camcorder, using them to explore in much the same way that he draws.

Mr. Polke returned to painting in earnest in the 1980s, exploring new materials and pigments so voraciously that his studio became an alchemist’s playground. He began experimenting with toxic substances, he said, because store-bought pigments often lacked the brilliant hues that he craved. He has used everything from arsenic and jade to azurite, turquoise, malachite, cinnabar and beeswax. He even extracted mucus from a snail and subjected it to light and oxygen to produce a vivid purple, in much the way the ancient Mycenaeans, Greeks and Romans created dye for their rulers’ robes.
In “Lump of Gold” (1982), he smeared arsenic directly on the canvas. Implicit was the notion that physical materials are as potent as the image itself. “He likes the idea that paintings can provide more than visual stimulation,” Mr. VeneKlasen said. “Large amounts of arsenic can kill, while small portions can heal.”

At various points he has alluded to the “higher powers” controlling his work. As early as the 1960s, Mr. Polke said, he created 16 photographs and 4 drawings of subjects like palm trees and female wrestlers and placed them inside a box. His notion was that the box — a sort of visual and metaphysical diary — would be sold to someone who would commune with the ideas within.

Inside Sigmar Polke’s studio in Cologne, Germany. Mr. Polke, who shuns the spotlight, has been known to go for months without letting visitors inside.
Inside Sigmar Polke’s studio in Cologne, Germany. Mr. Polke, who shuns the spotlight, has been known to go for months without letting visitors inside.
Credit...Albrecht Fuchs for The New York Times

“I was interested in parapsychology, in conceptual ideas,” he said. In a 1968 edition of works, “At the Command of Higher Powers,” every box features unique drawings and seven photographs, including one titled “Polke as a Palm,” for which he photographed himself clad only in underwear and feathers.

Art history plays a strong role, too. Ruminating on Rembrandt, he created a series as a commentary on the 1972 theft of a Rembrandt from the Kunstverein in Münster, Germany. Titled “Original and Forgery,” it explored the notion of authorship in an assemblage of large paintings, collage elements and mirror fragments. Beyond Rembrandt and Dürer, Mr. Polke says he has been influenced by Goya, particularly his haunting black paintings, which inspired him to create a series of photographs and glass-panel paintings in the early 1990s.

He also cites the macabre poems and images of William Blake, and more recent figures like the Surrealist artist Francis Picabia, whose transparent paintings from the early 1920s have had an obvious influence on his work. He calls Mr. Beuys his hero because he paved the way for so many German artists, created in so many different mediums and refocused attention on the issue of “what is art?”
Drawing on his early glass-painting training, Mr. Polke is now at work on a series of stained-glass windows for the Grossmünster cathedral in Zurich. On the floor of his studio proper were experimental maquettes with a variety of configurations of window designs as well as an array of stones and minerals.

“Alabaster has its own mystical history, people can understand it, but tourmaline is more sophisticated, glowing,” he said, pointing to a tourmaline sample, with its prismatic crystals. “It forms nice patterns, it’s not as ordinary. This is all about the idea of the most holy things.”

For themes, he has been mulling stories from the Old and New Testaments as well as less literal possibilities. “Figurative windows have to translate into a modern language” rather than recapitulate biblical images, he said.

But throughout this spring, he has spent most of his time in the backyard atelier finishing the paintings for Venice. Recently he has focused on how light changes the texture and colors of the canvases. “Light is a metaphoric thing,” taking on diverse emotional meanings, he explained over cups of tea in his living area. “There is green light and red light. Then there is black light, which is mostly danger.”

“I am trying to create another light, one that comes from reflection,” he said of the glow that emanates from the layers on his canvases. “Like celestial light, it gives the indication of new, supernatural things.” Some of the works will resemble golden landscapes, and another a sunrise. Their dusky texture is intended to induce a sort of drowsiness in the viewer.

Only one painting includes human figures: a line of children who peer down at an obscure abstract image. That image is an enlargement of a decayed photographic slide that Mr. Polke found in a graveyard, projected onto the canvas and then painted over.
As ever, Mr. Polke assumes that the audience in Venice will strain to interpret his paintings. But he adds that even he cannot distill a single meaning from any of his works.

“A finished painting is an impression of millions of impressions,” he said.

Maryam Nassir Zadeh is obsessed with a towel. It’s not a specific towel, but the idea of a towel, something textural, positive, warm, sun bleached. She’s found favorites at Air BnBs in Kenya and Formentera, occasionally smuggling others out from her favorite hotels around the globe. For the first time, she has made her own towel, worn on the runway by Cole Mohr in an outfit that almost resembles pajamas—save the beautiful leather boots. “He really pulls it off,” says Zadeh backstage.

To outsiders, this kind of dialogue and obsession over a towel might sound like something from an Ottessa Moshfegh story. It’s not—but Moshfegh did walk Zadeh’s runway today in a slate rib knit, slitted miniskirt, and black leather scarf. Both women have a shared affinity for character building and quirk; nothing normal happens on an MNZ runway or in a Moshfegh novel.

Or maybe both women are able to pick up on the very strange circumstances of a seemingly normal life. Zadeh’s garments are proudly of the anti-fashion movement—something Laird Borelli-Persson has been tracking the re-emergence of for months—and her garments are more about reflecting the vast interior lives of the people who wear them.

Trying to understand the nuance, to a MNZ first-timer, can be like cracking a code. Here is Susan Cianciolo, the godmother of all Lower East Side style, in a plaid scarf wrapped around her head (“very Susan,” approves Zadeh), and a leather, boxy skirt set (“not Susan at all,” she contrasts). To her and her community, that awkwardness is everything. Putting Drake Burnette in a slender ringer tee and charismatic long pencil skirt means something. Lexie Smith’s sheer butter-colored trousers under a sort of uncanny work dress are intentional; layering coats for Angel Prost mimics Prost’s own magpie style. On the whole, these clothes come with a gentle handfeel, lent by shell buttons on a lichen short sleeve shirt and the Sharpie-drawn logo on a tee.

So you see that handing Cole Mohr that towel really matters because it suggests that Mohr, just like the other dozens of people on the MNZ runway, has a life off of it. Amidst a wonky New York season, Zadeh is the rare—and getting rarer!—designer that makes clothing for a legitimate New York City life. (Another candidate, Mike Eckhaus, was in her front row today.) Does it make telling the difference between her models and her audience a little difficult? Yes. But what a great problem for a designer to have.

The lineup was infused with the freedom of summer dressing—or undressing—the instinctual improvisation of wearing a towel as a sarong, say. Modesty is not a consideration in the MNZ universe, which is body positive and empowering, and that is an extension of how Zadeh lives her life. On vacation, she said, “I was dressing in ways that were like half naked, half covered.” But that’s only part of the story: “I feel like there’s a fusion of the domestic element of my life [as a working mother], but then there’s sort of a tension between that and being free.” The idea of domesticity came through in a literal way; the designer worked with interior textiles like tablecloths and bath towels. Similarly, the idea of finding “space in between” was evident in such garments as half skirts.

How these will translate on a rack would be a question, save for the fact that they might not ever land there. Zadeh explained that many of the materials she used have been in her personal collection for decades. Not wanting to cut them up, she worked around them, allowing the textiles to guide the patterns and some no-sew pieces in ways that she feels will lead her in exciting new directions. Thus her reworkings represented a dialogue with fabric and the sum of her past experiences and relationships. The MNZ boutique has long been home to independent brands—like the upcycling label All-In—which do things differently.

It was the lightest pieces that best captured the ephemerality of memory and emphasized the space that exists between the body and the cloth. A polka-dot dress, for example, was the color of sky in the early morning; a yellow woven men’s shirt was tethered by knit cuffs and collars. Layering heavier materials over lighter ones was another way to emphasize the delicacy of the fabrics. Garters and bras added a whiff of the boudoir to the proceedings. A jersey dress with a beautifully shaped scoop neck in front and back was paired with a bra, which by now has fully come out from under. The idea of apron skirts and tying things on is one that is surfacing in many collections. In some ways this harks back to classical precedents and manipulation of material rather than construction. “I wanted to be natural,” Zadeh said, and there’s nothing more so than the human form, which was the designer’s focus this season. What she calls her reworks are works in progress—as is life.

Maryam Nassir Zadeh