When the august and ever-expanding Museum of Modern Art offers one of its biggest exhibitions of all time, attention must be paid—who could merit that kind of attention, given the fact that such titans as Willem de Kooning have recently had major events at MoMA? This month, the super-sized show “Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010” arrives with some 300 works across many media. Like the German artist’s work, it’s protean, sprawling, riveting.
“Bigness isn’t necessarily good, but in this case, it’s the first sizable retrospective to include all his media; it required that spaciousness,” says Kathy Halbreich, MoMA’s deputy director and the primary force behind the show. As the exhibition’s subtitle indicates, Polke (1941-2010) was a master of multiple identities. His works are frequently layered, covered and revealed, brimming with ambiguity. “He seems to have no boundaries, no style, no limits,” says Halbreich. That, of course, makes him a difficult artist to pin down: “Writing my essay nearly put me over the edge,” she adds with a laugh.
Over the years, the alibi-prone Polke represented himself in artworks variously as a palm tree, a doppelganger, and an astronaut. Halbreich remembers him wearing snakeskin pants, an appropriate metaphor: “Snakes move fast and shed their skin. He was constantly reinventing himself.”
But his shape-shifting can’t obscure the fact that he was perhaps Germany’s most important post-war artist, save only his onetime teacher Joseph Beuys. Included in the massive show, which goes to London’s Tate Modern after MoMA, are abstractions like the ghostly, white-streaked Untitled (2007), as well as the classic 1980s piece Watchtower with Geese (1988), with its totalitarian subject matter and its use of interlocking color and patterns on fabric—one of Polke’s many experiments with materials other than plain old oil on canvas. “I think people will be surprised by the enormous variety, but also the strange unifying spirit across all the work,” says Gordon VeneKlasen, his dealer for 20 years at the Michael Werner Gallery and a close friend.
Polke’s early work dovetailed with the Pop era, but he was in some ways the anti-Pop artist. He, too, looked at the everyday world for inspiration and imagery, but his take was more sinister. “Compare Roy Lichtenstein’s Hot Dog with Polke’s The Sausage Eater, which is in the show,” says Halbreich, referring to works that were done a year apart, in the early 1960s. “Same subject matter, but Lichtenstein’s has a triumphant cleanliness, and Polke’s is dirty, dusty and contaminated.”
The Sausage Eater was done with Polke’s “raster dot” technique, his own version of Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots or the Pointillist daub. (They are quite literally Polke dots.) The very first work in the show is Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) (1963), a chilling subject that Polke returned to. “Our exhibition is a loop,” says Halbreich. “We start with that raster and end with a four-part projection of Lee Harvey Oswald imagery.”
Small gouaches show another side of his work, like Sketchbook No. 21 (1969), with a loosely drawn figure appearing to give an almost Munchian scream. There are also 13 films in the exhibition that will be a revelation, since eight of them have not been seen before by most audiences. Late in Polke’s life, before he died of cancer at 69, editing films was something he could comfortably do while sitting in a chair.
Over the decades, there was almost nothing he wouldn’t attempt to create art. “He was a volcanic experimenter,” says Halbreich. For Watchtower (1984), he employed silver bromide, the photographic substance that changes over time with light. The sculpture Potato House (1967) is painted latticework and actual potatoes— one of Polke’s many references to the earthy basics of life that kept post-World War II Germans alive.
Polke sometimes drew cartoon-like figures, and he loved to steal images from newspapers, like many Pop artists and like his German peer Gerhard Richter. In 1970, he took a beautiful black-and- white photograph of his artist friend Michael Buthe— and then painted the face over with primary red, blue and yellow hues, a typically nose-thumbing gesture. Polke’s relationship to color was typically off-center and effective. Frequently appearing in the exhibition’s works are an unsettling orange— the color of menace and alert— and a mysterious mauve. Halbreich says, “He was fascinated by the antique rarity of purple,” one of Polke’s many explorations of arcane history.
“Witty, yet brutal” is the museum’s official line on Polke’s work of the late 1960s, but that phrase could really apply to anything he did. Dark humor infuses all his work. Born in 1941, in the height of the Nazi regime, he spent his formative years in the ashes of Germany’s shame and its shaky rehabilitation. His family fled East Germany for the West. “He grew up in utter and total chaos,” says VeneKlasen. “He was fleeing the whole early part of his life.”
Although he was a restless and curious soul who traveled the world, he lived most of his life in the country of his birth, largely in Cologne. (Polke was married and divorced twice and had two children with his first wife.) “He was an obviously an international artist, but his roots are buried very deep in the German soil,” says Halbreich, who feels that the messiness of Polke’s work is rooted in a deep mistrust of authority and a cynicism about the Modernist quest for purity in all things: “He was polluted by the Third Reich’s ideas about a much more poisonous kind of purity. I think he was a political agnostic but a deeply sensitive person who was chased by the past.”
Polke’s intellectual range was unusually broad. “He worked on so many levels,” says VeneKlasen. “I would go book shopping with him, and he could do that for weeks. He looked for underlying theories of the universe.” It made him a difficult artist to understand and appreciate, which is perhaps why there isn’t a signature Polke work— and that may be just how he liked it. “That’s why he’s a great artist,” says Halbreich. “The difficulty of pinning him down is a suggestion of the freedom he wrestled out of a difficult history and the very problems of trying to say something and be original.”
Working with him was no picnic, either. “The first time I went to see him, I was deeply honored he only made me wait half a day,” says Halbreich. “He was extremely private. He kept his telephone in a suitcase.” VeneKlasen remembers, “He had no secretary or assistant. For years, people would call me trying to get through to him.” Not only was there no one to help him contact the outside world, he had no studio assistants whatsoever, making him an outlier in an age when artists routinely have armies of helpers.
When the curator Robert Storr featured Polke in the Venice Biennale, the exhibition was a surprise— even to Storr. “Rob had no idea what was in the exhibition,” says VeneKlasen, because Polke wouldn’t tell him until the works actually showed up. “He knew he had a room. For me, that was kind of exciting.”
Not surprisingly, the artist was touchy about how his work was shown, especially when it came to career-capping tributes. “He didn't want a greatest-hits show,” says VeneKlasen. The last retrospective of his work to make it to New York was in 1991, and Halbreich had many hurdles to making the current one happen. “He left no files,” she said. “It’s been a massive research project. It’s one of the reasons we don’t know the work as well. We only know bits and pieces.”
Polke did few interviews, often joking around or spreading misinformation when he did submit to one. His stubbornness, his single-mindedness and his devotion to his art— rather than to blabbing on about it— are some of the reasons he’s always been “the artist’s artist,” in the words of contemporary painter Amy Sillman. “Artists admire it,” says Halbreich. “They are so pushed to be public figures and to produce for galleries, art fairs and museums— there’s very little privacy left in the process.”
But now, the MoMA show is displaying the totality of Polke’s achievement, and anyone with a few hours to spare can decide if they agree with VeneKlasen, who’s still taken aback that Polke is no longer around to challenge and surprise us. “He was a king among artists,” he says. “Sigmar was something special.”