Left: Gerhard Richter's 'Stadtbild' (1968). Right: Sigmar Polke's 'Don Quichotte' (1968)
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Many of art’s breakthroughs have been achieved by pairs of figures, urging each other on to the unthinkable: Picasso and Braque yoked together like mountaineers, the Spanish artist said, during the invention of cubism; Monet and Renoir on the banks of the Seine on the cusp on impressionism; Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns anticipating pop art in New York. And Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke confronting zero hour in postwar Germany – their work now explored together for the first time since 1966 in a joint exhibition at Christie’s in London.

A part-selling show, polke/richter richter/polke is an unashamedly commercial proposition: Richter’s “Domplatz, Mailand” holds the record (£24m) for the most expensive work by a living artist, and Polke’s reputation is soaring following the launch this month of his retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The joys of Polke, though – his anarchic approach, exuberant messiness, flair for textural and multimedia experimentation, embrace of the fragile and ephemeral, resistance to categories and catalogues – are a practical nightmare for museums and auction houses. So Christie’s exhibition is canny: juxtaposing him with the orderly Richter imposes a sense of coherence on Polke’s oeuvre, and allows a decade-by-decade focus on his painting. In a solo show such an approach might feel like a betrayal of Polke the wild child, but the advantages for insight and clarity are pronounced.

Lifted by choice loans, the first rooms are a wonderful drama of creative influence and rivalry. “Bavarian”, Polke’s raster-dot painting transforming a newspaper clipping about a Bavarian band into a schematic series of enlarged black dots, and Richter’s blurred grey chandelier “Flämische Krone” hang opposite one another as they did in the joint show at galerie h, Hanover, in 1966. Sometimes the two artists’ aesthetic is so close that, remove the dots from, say, “Freundinnen II”, a hand-coloured silkscreen version of Polke’s celebrated painting, currently on show at MoMA, of grey laughing girls in bright bikinis, and it could be a Richter – “Party”, for instance, depicting similar newsprint-pin-up types, slashed through with dangerous red.

By 1968, a pair of iconic works already predict different paths: Richter’s rigorously structured grisaille “Stadtbild” alongside Polke’s comic dot-portrait of arch-fantasist “Don Quichotte”. Still, the shared approach is what dominates: aping photomechanical reproduction methods with laboriously handmade marks, insisting on a non-hierarchic, deadpan treatment of the whole picture surface, Richter and Polke in the 1960s forced painting into a formal confrontation with photography that has shaped European figuration – Luc Tuymans, Peter Doig, Wilhelm Sasnal – ever since. Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were doing the same in America, but the German model was always more sinister and interesting, because its denial of the image was so fraught with distrust of history.

The dots and blurs suggest concealment, taciturnity, the refusal of any certainty, which was the legacy of the morally fatherless generation who emerged in postwar Germany; born in the east and settled in the west, Richter, now 82, and Polke (1941-2010) alike had experienced both Nazi and communist regimes. Polke’s use of fabric surfaces, dynamically overpainted with acrylic, lacquer, resin, in several untitled examples here, evokes the prettifying wallpaper and faux-exotic fabrics of domestic German interiors; culture may have been employed to paper over the cracks of the past, but in the end could not conceal the faultlines of the new Germany. Stark in comparison, Richter’s monochrome “Grau” is a nihilistic statement about the falsity of all pictures.

But nihilists, especially German ones, are often romantics in waiting, and if the first rooms here buzz with the energy of a pair of young men contra mundum, taking upon themselves the challenge of inventing a new language for painting, the show unravels into pure dissections of beauty, colour, form, which are ravishing. Although both artists continued to be concerned with the distortions of realism, a grappling with abstraction fuels their later oeuvres.

It is a revelation here to see Polke’s “Laterna Magica” works – multiple images glowing in gold and orange, including swathes of abstract paint, random doodles and figurative elements, executed in resin and lacquer on both sides of transparent supports so that light passes through – in the context of a large group of Richter’s assured, squeegee-smeared “Abstraktes Bild” canvases, sensuous exercises in movement and chance. Both turn on ambiguity and futility, and use veils of colour to establish distance and instability, yet how finished and balanced Richter looks set against the provisional, laconic Polke.

As the exhibition progresses, Richter’s abstractions become tighter, more formal – the dense, controlled crimson “Abstraktes Bild” from 1991, the shimmering cobalt window-like pattern of “Abstraktes Bild” from 1994 – whereas Polke the alchemist, experimenting with fruit juice, arsenic, textiles, stencils, and purple dye derived from snails, is looser, haphazard, hallucinogenic. “Katastrophentheorie III” (1983) is a gorgeous pool of purple pigment; panels of spilled, dripped paint, suggesting flux not unity, comprise “Triptych” (1991); works on paper are by turns grungy, pearlescent, mere scrawled marks; collages include reprises of his own 1960s styles such as the humorous “Bikini Frauen” (1999).

This is not a definitive overview of either artist – Richter’s later figurative work is excluded (his abstract paintings are his best sellers), and the cream of Polke’s output is at MoMA. Backed by superb documentary material – photographs of the lanky, spectacled Polke and the compact, neater Richter larking together in the bath, climbing trees, having breakfast with their families – it is nevertheless a moving account of a youthful partnership. Clearly the exuberant Polke liberated the melancholy Richter, whose discipline in turn grounded his unruly friend. Richter says he was in the 1960s closer to Polke than he had ever been to anyone: a relationship that was enriching, brutal, competitive as both “of us were very unsure of ourselves, and each tried to cover this up in his own way”, before “Polke drifted away into the psychedelic direction and I into the classical”.

Yes but . . . The contrast between Polke’s chaotic hybridity and open-endedness, and Richter’s non-committal gravity – his monumental layered, erased “Cage” paintings allude to John Cage’s “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it” – indeed ignites this show. There is, however, another tension, within each artist, between fractured forms and a pessimistic sense of emptiness on the one hand, and on the other a longing for unity and harmony that is classical and also a remnant of the German sublime. The clown and the thinker here mirror one another and share in spite of themselves something like romantic idealism: as the young Richter put it, “seeing as there are no more philosophers and priests, artists are the most important people in the world”.

‘polke/richter richter/polke’, Christie’s Mayfair, London, to July 7, christies.com

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