Kathy Halbreich knew from the outset that her retrospective of Sigmar Polke would be a very big show. When he died in 2010, the German artist left behind five decades of wildly diverse and formally innovative paintings, prints, sculptures, films, photographs and drawings, many of them large scale. Despite having to make some “hideous choices”, Halbreich, who is associate director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York – has whittled her selection down to around 265 works. When it opens on 19 April, “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 – 2010” will be one of the largest exhibitions in the museum’s history.
Soon after arriving at the museum in 2008, Halbreich pitched her idea for this retrospective to wide enthusiasm. Her newly created position, she concedes, “is not primarily an exhibition making role”, but she regards the show as a long-term labour of love. Polke’s last retrospective in the US was in 1990 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Halbreich, who had known the artist for many years, remembers travelling to San Francisco for the opening. At the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, where she was director from 1991 to 2007, she acquired comprehensive collection of Polke’s prints and multiples, as well as the painting Mrs Autumn and Her Two Daughters (Frau Herbst un ihre zwei Töchter), 1991, on loan for “Alibis”. (She describe the purchase as a “big gulp” for the institution).
Unlimited access to his estate
When she approached Polke with her idea for a cross-disciplinary exhibition, she expected him to refuse. In her catalogue essay, she notes that the intensely private artist enjoyed his reputation as a “contrarian without a recognizable style” and that by bringing all the strands of his practice together in one exhibition, he risked being exposed as “intellectually and aesthetically consistent”. The title of the retrospective, “Alibis”, alludes to Polke’s predilection for elusion, distraction and unpredictability. To Halbreich’s surprise, Polke consented to her proposal. Halbreich has a theory as to why she got lucky: “Sigmar was deeply interested in astrology and paranormal behaviour, and I think the stars aligned.”
She also knew, in 2008, that Polke was unwell, but she had no inkling that two years later he would be dead from cancer at the age of 69. Since 2010, Halbreich has made 12 trips to his Cologne studio, where she has worked closely with Polke’s wife and two children who gave her unlimited access to his estate. Among the lesser known works in this retrospective are 13 films by the artist which Halbreich says are “so clearly influenced by his paintings” and four untitled paintings, from 1990, in soot on glass, never before seen in the US.
The largest piece in the exhibition is too big to fit in the second floor galleries where most of the works are installed. The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaida (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaeda), 2002, is a digital print on tarpaulin, six and a half metres high. It will be the centrepiece of what Halbreich describes as a “mini-retrospective that actually looks like a group show” in the museum’s soaring central atrium. Visitors will experience the breadth of Polke’s stylistic output – an appropriated newspaper image, a text painting in lacquer on translucent polyester, and a large lenticular print – before embarking on a chronological journey through his career.
In this, the first survey of his career, Halbreich says she wanted to keep the show “as clean and as uninflected as I could make it”. This was not the moment to “play artist”. Unnecessary curatorial meddling, she says, would cast her in a role that Polke, who grew up in a post-Nazi Germany, considered so suspicious: the “higher being” that “commands” (one of his most famous paintings is called Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!, 1969).
The exhibition will chart a course from Polke’s work from the 1960s, when he was associated with the German “Capitalist Realism” movement, through to the 1970s, when he began to travel widely and experiment with hallucinogenic drugs. A major shift, says Halbriech, occurs in the early 1980s, when Polke returned from his travels and hit a rich seam of material innovation (using pattered fabrics, bubble wrap, silver leaf, resin and lacquers, among other unlikely substances).
By the time “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” travels to Tate Modern in October (where it will be curated by Mark Godfrey) and Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in spring 2015, Halbreich expects that there will be a new generation of young Polke devotees established in New York. Her own boundless enthusiasm for Polke’s work, she says, has only deepened during the course of this project: “As a curator, you try to maintain your disinterest but you’re also falling in love”.