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This major survey of Sigmar Polke’s vast body of work completed its three-city tour with a fitting last stop in Cologne, the artist’s long-time studio base. In putting together the first retrospective to cover all phases of his highly prolific career, Kathy Halbreich, with co-curators Mark Godfrey and Lanka Tattersall, faced an enormous task. The scale of the show was a constant theme in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) press materials and in the many exhibition reviews published as it traveled. Containing 250 works, it counts among the largest exhibitions ever mounted at MoMA, which in turn justified the production of a hefty catalogue that, in its level of detail and thoroughness, clearly required extensive research and preparation. For the Polke aficionado who has followed his major exhibitions, including the outstanding show of works on paper curated by Margit Rowell at MoMA in 1999, the number of previously unseen images and objects in this full-scale overview was revelatory. For the uninitiated visitor, the ten galleries (plus the works on view in the atrium) teeming with a dizzying array of materials, themes, and mediums might have been overwhelming. But even with the generally elegant and comfortably spaced installation, no viewer could have missed the curatorial ambition behind this project.
Halbreich had already begun meeting with Polke to develop the retrospective before he died in June 2010. Yet it seems that the show’s impact and timeliness extend beyond the worthy goal of honoring and presenting to a wide public the work of an influential artist. The stakes for this exhibition were particularly high as MoMA continues to map its own future. Caught in the last two decades between its historic role as the arbiter of modernism and its current and future position in a global network of institutions tracking the decentered, unpredictable growth of contemporary art, MoMA chose the right artist to mark this transitional period. The exhibition revealed previously unseen works and aspects of Polke’s practice that gave deeper insight into his versatility as an artist whose avoidance of an identifiable style puts him at odds with the museum’s earlier attempts to define lineages and formal categories. However, it also reaffirmed that he was entirely capable of producing works, especially his later paintings, which fit surprisingly well within MoMA’s carefully crafted narrative of modern art’s progress. He emerged in this show as a significant hinge figure, someone capable of both challenging and supporting MoMA’s shift from a modernist temple to something closer to a laboratory for contemporary art.
The curators wisely opted for an installation that operated roughly along chronological lines while highlighting themes that Polke frequently treated. Discreetly placed text panels offered brief summaries of these topics, but individual wall labels did not crowd the many works. Instead, visitors could consult a paper booklet with floor plans of each gallery and corresponding work captions along with explanations of a range of specific pieces. This structure produced an immersive, meandering experience less determined by the didactic information found in many retrospectives, allowing the audience to grapple first with the visual effects of the works before trying to unpack their contents. At the same time, the galleries grouped Polke’s diverse output with sufficient attention to temporal phases, making it possible for catalogue contributors and exhibition reviewers to argue in support of their favorite phase in his career. In a new interview produced for the catalogue, Benjamin Buchloh acknowledges that he finds the work produced after 1971, when Polke’s experiments with psychedelic drugs partly guided his process, to be lacking in political bite. By contrast, for Sanford Schwartz, writing in the New York Review of Books, the 1980s are more satisfying as it was during this period that Polke’s paintings grew in scale and complexity, culminating in a more aesthetically compelling phase than that of the 1970s, when the artist made a “risky and dramatic overhaul of his work” (Sanford Schwartz, “Wildly Inventive Sigmar Polke,” New York Review of Books 61, no. 11 [June 19, 2014]: 39–41). These divergent views address Polke’s explosive work of the 1970s. They also acknowledge the broad spectrum of his practice, which veered from caustic socio-political critique to relatively earnest formal and material experimentation, often within short stretches of time, thereby calling into question the reliance on decades to divide up his production.
The first three galleries confronted the viewer with Polke’s early, critical engagement with postwar German consumer culture and mass media. Here one could recognize immediately how quick the young artist was (he produced many of these pieces while still a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf) to skewer mendacity and self-importance in both the low and the high realms, all the while questioning whether the artist has any measureable impact in the world. His early notebooks (made partially available at MoMA in physical form but also accessible as scanned pages on iPads), ballpoint-pen drawings, and paintings are full of abbreviated, inventive renditions of generic products (men’s socks, cookies, plastic tubs) and portraits of the famous and the infamous, such as German actor and singer Hans Albers and Lee Harvey Oswald. It is precisely the discrepancy between a crowd-pleasing entertainer and an alleged political assassin that stamps much of Polke’s work from the 1960s. His social commentary veers rapidly from the mundane to the serious, often within single works that might initially appear innocuous. For instance, Cardboardology (1968–69), a series of twenty-three small pieces of cardboard in different sizes and shades of brown nailed to the wall in an uneven row, can be read productively as a clever, if rather gentle, take down of arbitrary systems operating in the art world (with Minimalism and Conceptual art as obvious targets). But in an essay on Cardboardology in the catalogue, Christian Rattemeyer argues that Polke’s addition of a hand-drawn chart laying out the lineage of the cardboard shapes should be understood as a reference to the Nazis’ efforts to diagram categories of genetic inheritance as part of their racist agenda. This is certainly a convincing claim, and it supports the notion that more lurks beneath the surface of Polke’s work than fleeting attacks on the changing tastes of art and commerce. And yet, as with so many other instances in the show, the debased materials and forlorn appearance of Cardboardology distract the viewer from seeking out such a historically motivated interpretation.
For all of his ability to level sharp and incisive critical attacks, Polke, it seems, was skeptical of taking an unambiguously critical position that would have required him to assert a degree of truth-value, something he rejected on principle. His ambivalence came through strongly in the exhibition, which, in its partially chronological organization, captured the arc of his career as it moved from small-scale, one-off works on paper to large and imposing paintings that looked at home in the museum’s clean, renovated rooms. With such an inclusive approach, the curators succeeded in revealing many previously underappreciated sides to Polke’s career, most particularly in his wild and free-ranging work of the 1970s and in the very welcome focus on his filmic output, much of which had never been shown in public. Although the wealth of materials and media from the 1970s had been included in the groundbreaking 2009 show Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois! Comrades and Contemporaries, The 1970s at the Hamburger Kunsthalle (accompanied by a valuable publication with the same title edited by Petra Lange-Berndt and Dietmar Rübel [Cologne: Walther König, 2011]), to see it at MoMA sandwiched between the better-known works of the 1960s and what followed in the 1980s and beyond was to discover the period when the tension Polke developed between keen-eyed documentarian and playful visionary became fully articulated. On the one hand the viewer could witness Polke using film and photography to record the behavior of both his circle of friends (often at his Willich compound outside of Düsseldorf) and the wider world during his travels in Central Asia and South America. This semi-objective observer role stands in contrast to Polke’s consumption during the early 1970s of hallucinogenic drugs and his related experiments in visual perception and dabbling in mysticism. This work makes clear that the artist never sought to satisfy any viewer’s expectations. Rather, Polke simultaneously engaged and fled historical context, making it difficult to ascribe singular meanings to his work.
As he moved into the 1980s and began to receive international acclaim, Polke placed increasing emphasis on material and formal experimentation. In 1988, he put it succinctly: “It’s the procedures in and for themselves that interest me, the picture isn’t really necessary” (exhibition wall text). Though the many late works included in the show bore out this statement, one was simultaneously struck by the sheer number of pictures that he produced in the last three decades of his life. During these years Polke thoroughly revealed his encyclopedic knowledge of art history and his drive to push the limits of aesthetic experimentation while also utilizing nontraditional, and sometimes unstable, materials (such as radioactive uranium). Despite their messy, layered, and haphazard surfaces, these works possess an undeniable visual appeal that made them so viable in the art market.
The many guises of Polke on view in this exhibition led Halbreich, in her engaging and perceptive catalogue essay, to employ the notion of the “alibi” as an organizing framework that helps to explain his aversion to consistency of method and medium. In Halbreich’s view, the alibi is a kind of diversionary tactic, “distracting from the principles of contamination that marked his approach to sources and materials and provided the philosophical foundation for his promiscuous intelligence” (66). She proposes that Polke long avoided the full-scale retrospective, with its suggestion of developmental clarity and thematic logic, in order not to expose his lack of restraint and embrace of inconsistency. This seems odd, given that a single work by Polke can easily communicate such self-contradictory tendencies. Nonetheless, it is gratifying to know that he had a hand in conceptualizing the exhibition before he died. In the end, it was clear that Polke needed no alibis: his work could be wild and occasionally perverse, but also balanced and, frankly, beautiful. To locate moments of grace in his vast oeuvre does not compromise its essential unruliness.
Gregory H. Williams
Associate Professor, History of Art and Architecture, Boston University
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