In a sprawling exhibition opening tomorrow, New York's Museum of Modern Art displays over 250 examples from the late Sigmar Polke's multidisciplinary oeuvre, devoting one of its largest exhibitions to date to the idiosyncratic German artist. This is the first Polke exhibition, according to the museum, to include works from nearly every medium in which he worked.
"Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010" (through Aug. 3) includes Polke's signature raster paintings, his works on paper and his collages, as well as photographs, Xeroxes, sculptures, 13 films (eight of which were never previously publicly screened) and a group of monumental soot-on-glass pictures never before exhibited in the United States. Co-organized with London's Tate Modern, the show probes the complexities of the irreverent giant of postwar German art, who died in 2010 at age 69.
For two years, exhibition curators Kathy Halbreich (an associate director at MoMA), Mark Godfrey (curator of international art at Tate Modern) and Lanka Tattersall (curatorial assistant at MoMA) collaborated with Polke. After his death, the organizers sought assistance from the artist's second wife, Augustina von Nagel, and his two children, all of whom became essential partners. The resulting exhibition showcases the artist's catholic taste in mediums and approach, reflecting his sly wit as well as his (typically) postwar German tendency toward guilt and evasion. The exhibition's enigmatic title captures some of that slipperiness.
Born in 1941 in the former German state of Silesia (now Poland), Polke and his family eventually emigrated to West Germany, settling in Düsseldorf when Polke was 12. In 1961 he enrolled in the art academy there and met fellow émigrés Richter and Manfred Kuttner, with whom Polke exhibited. As children, all three had been exposed to the heavy-handed Socialist Realist imagery. In West Germany, they witnessed postwar reconstruction and its attendant economic boom. Through art journals, they saw British and American artists reacting to capitalism's abundance with a new style called Pop.
Polke's early Chocolate Painting (1964) finds the artist combining the languages of modernism and advertising. In the enamel-on-canvas work, Polke rendered a chocolate bar, one piece broken off, the rest still wrapped in foil and paper, hovering over a striped background. The effect is comical—some manna has surely dropped from heaven—but also flat-footed and wry. The candy, meant to inflame appetites, floats in a field of stringent, Modernist restraint.
And then there are Polke's dots. Just as Roy Lichtenstein worked with Benday dots, so Polke gravitated to rasters. A German term that means "grid" or "screen," raster refers to the gridded screens used in halftone printing. Yet Polke's process didn't involve any screens at all—his raster paintings were handmade. He dipped a pencil eraser into pigment and pressed each dot, one by one, into the surface. The resulting images, fragmented and incomplete when viewed up close, straddle both the understandable and the unknowable.
Polke's profound distrust of postwar German authority manifests itself in the sarcasm of works such as Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! (1969). The lacquer-on-canvas picture shows exactly what is given in the title: a triangle of black in an otherwise white canvas. The work's title, in German, runs across the picture's lower register.
Later in his career, experiments with mysticism and drugs led to entire suites of work culling sources far and wide and incorporating materials as varied as meteor dust and potatoes. Polke also regularly lifted imagery from major artistic figures of the past, including Goya and Dürer.
Though not his last work, Polke's commanding The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (2002), a digital print on tarpaulin over 21 feet high and 16 feet wide, nevertheless encapsulates the artist's ambitious career. Based on a German newspaper infographic in which the surveillance routes of drone aircraft are tracked, the piece evokes the ease with which the horrors of war are sanitized for mass audiences. It's an unsettling work of monumental ambition, and it's quintessential Sigmar Polke.