Sigmar Polke: Alibis
MoMA, New York
April 19 - August 3, 2014
By VALERY OISTEANU, MAY 2014
Alibis begins impressively: The visitor stands in a grand atrium in a circle of oversized works that are seductive, provocative and mysterious all at the same time. They comprise just one facet (of many) of the reclusive yet highly influential German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010).
The atrium is partly given over to Potatoes House, the structure of which is composed of round spuds. It acts as prelude to what is in effect an art diary of more than 265 works, some never shown in Polke’s lifetime, including paintings, sculpture, photography, drawing, collages and films. This incredibly varied output is installed in 10 galleries of the MoMA’s second floor, as organized by a trio of the museum’s associate director, Kathy Halbreich, who approached Polke about assembling such a show in 2008; Mark Godfrey, curator of international art at the Tate Modern, where the show will travel in October; and Lanka Tattersall, curatorial assistant at MoMA.
Polke did not care for celebrity as such and rarely gave interviews, so it was a real achievement that Halbreich was able to get him to agree to a retrospective, and he had begun to make selections for this show when he died. Ultimately the show spans five decades of a prodigious output, the work of one man working alone.
The exhibit flows chronologically beginning with his days as cofounder of the short-lived art movement known as Capitalist Realism (as opposed to the Social Realism practiced in communist East Germany). His partners in this endeavor were painter Gerhard Richter (b.1932), who also relocated from East to West Germany,and painter/gallerist Konrad Lueg (1939-1996). But he quickly moved on to many other styles making myriad experiments—and innovations—in the realms of conceptual art, gestural abstract-art, pop-surrealism, psychedelic art, collage and other post-modernist disciplines.
During his early, pop-art period, Polke painted images of mundane objects like matchsticks, socks, pressed white shirts, chocolate bars, chains of sausages, biscuits and more, and depicted them in a somewhat exalted style, as though they were going to be used for advertisements, an expression of his skeptical view of a conspicuous consumerist society.
My favorites of this section include an otherwise bare painting of a long link of loop-de-loop sausages ending in an open disembodied mouth (The Sausage Eater, 1963); a broken chocolate bar laid over vertical stripes (Chocolate Painting,1964); and three unmatched men’s socks (Socks, 1963). They all appear in as faux commercials, with cartoon-like irony, clearly influenced byAmerican pop masters Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol.
At the same time, Polke produced his “raster-dot” paintings, as in Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald (1963), which he produced in the style of a dotted pattern as seen in close-ups of half-tone photographs. But Polke achieved his effects by hand, unlike Lichtenstein’s use of already printed Benday dots, creating each and every dot using poster paint applied sometimes with a pencil eraser dipped in ink. This also gave him the freedom to follow his muse, to blur and arrange things as he wished.
A photograph (reproduced in the splendid accompanying catalog) shows Polke lying on top of a canvas, painstakingly applying such dots, on a work that became Front of a Housing Block (1967), also on display here. Another snapshot, taken by his wife Anna, reveals another side his modus operandi, depicting him working on a canvas upon which a field of dots has been projected, thanks to mesh laid in front of the projector, thus giving the artist a blueprint to follow.
By the yearly 1980s, Polke had gone on to engage in a critical confrontation with past German history, and several swastikas appear in his drawings from this period, along with the painted four-panel series, Watchtowers (1984-1985), which play on a leitmotiv of concentration-camp guard towers. These are prime examples of Polke’s inventiveness in what he chose as materials, in essence espousing “Better Art Through Chemistry.” He often combined photography and painting, using enhancements such as silver bromide, used by photographers because of the way it changes in daylight, rendering subjects dark and mysterious.
He also applied enamel paint to bubble wrap, dry pigment to cloth, and other combinations that result works that challenge the viewer both optically and mentally. Watchtower With Geese (1987-1988) shows the ubiquitous and foreboding tower surrounded by a flock of geese, plus beach umbrellas, sunglasses and chez lounges stenciled upside down turning the scene into a gruesome holiday.
“Things Look Like They Are (synthetic resin and lacquer on polyester; 1991) features its own title (in German) writ large in stenciled capital letters, in reverse, as if being viewed in a mirror - only this mirror includes an opaque pattern of berries and leaves which helps summarize a running theme of the show: Nothing is, as it seems. Truth can be manipulated, and artists often manipulate the reality they describe in order to suggest multiple ways of seeing, a complexity of perception.
Polke was an exhausting explorer of avant-garde esthetics, a practioner of sharp irony a la Kurt Schwitters “MERZ.” One drawback here is a lack of wall texts or captions, which though often didactic can also occasionally prove helpful. Just trying to ID the name of a particular painting from a printed guide/checklist was a challenge, even for a veteran gallerist like me. Indeed, the entire atmosphere of the show has a whiff of elitism.
Clearly Polke was more than a painter; he was a“media-pluralist” trying his hand as printing, photography, and film. He also was an autodidact who, according to Halbreich, read and owned somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 books in his studio in Cologne. He dabbled in philosophy, Buddhism and psychedelic experiments. Psychedelic mushrooms appear in several prints of superimposed dream images (Mushrooms 1972; Alice in Wonderland, 1972); he also made films of the poppy growers of Afghanistan and Pakistan with minstrel-monkeys, and other multi-disciplinary experimentations with visual poetry.
Constantly defying aesthetic boundaries, Polke extended the visual vocabularies of painting and printmaking through alchemical processes. He worked tirelessly to produce so-called “bad-art”, purposely clumsy, deliberate chaotic, distressed and often literally burned around the edges for antique effect.
Polke’s 20 collages and handmade books are a highlight of the entire show. They are authentic, erotic, exotic and political, offering a rich narrative of his travels. His sketchbooks revealing experiments such as one untitled work (1999), whose Rorschach test-like mirror images resemble a bright red butterfly; other books are darkly over-inked, still others filled with whimsical drawings and collages in the tradition of neo-dada, Fluxus and Nouveau-Realism.
By the end of this multi-media trip, one can’t help but be impressed with Polke’s use of unusual “arte-povera” materials—banal fabrics, meteorite dust, disrupting photo copying techniques. Destruction becomes creation!
As Raphael Rubinstein summarized at Polke’s death: "He deflated the utopian pretensions of modernism, recognized the artistic potential of consumer society's most banal products, stirred together photography and psychedelics to startling effect, mined the earth and heavens for unorthodox materials, retrieved history as a vital subject for painting, created a new multilayered pictorial syntax, reconciled figuration and abstraction, and much, much more!” (Obit, Art in America, 2010).
The overload one experiences from Polke’s Alibis should not deter visitors from apprehending this show as a Rosetta Stone for understanding contemporary art, a quick course in interdisciplinary media and countless layers of visual meanings, symbols and subliminal messages—all for us to experience & decipher.
Valery Oisteanu is a writer and artist with international flavor. Born in USSR (1943) and educated in Romania. He adopted Dada and Surrealism as a philosophy of art and life. Immigrating to New York City in 1972, he has been writing in English for the past 40 years. He is the author of 11 books of poetry, a book of short fiction and a book of essays: ”The AVANT-GODS”. www.ackerawards.com/#!nyc-awards/canhview all articles from this author