Sigmar Polke was a master magician among the principal tricksters of art history, a mischief-maker of illusions of illusion itself, not to mention reality, whatever, of course, we believed prior to witnessing his slights of hand. This massive retrospective—a little too cleaned up, maybe too chronological (against the artist’s wishes, we learned from curator Kathy Halbreich at the preview), and more comprehensible than I anticipated—is anything but too much, even though the exhibition guide lists 265 works. Absorbing as much of it as I could as if it were seeping in through my pores, I left MoMA wanting even more Polke, even though I had previously scored a healthy fix at Michael Werner’s in-depth presentation of nearly 100 early works on paper. Both exhibitions left me also wanting more from everything else, but especially from art. My desire was intensified because this is a perfect moment (in our time of truthiness and faux-outrage) for taking on the sweep of Polke’s production: paintings, drawings, photographs, films, prints, objects, even church windows made of translucent stone. Not all of it is successful (how could it be? I thought as I left), but none of it is inconsequential, despite Polke’s constant attempts to make it look otherwise.
Minor art that masquerades as major seems today to have become self-replicating and suffocating in an attempt to distract us from the prospect of our landscape filling up with what was recently labeled “flip art” by Scott Reyburn in the New York Times: the quick-to-auction work of young painters like Oscar Murillo and Dan Rees, who produce a lite brand of process-heavy abstraction. Polke’s major art masquerading as minor reveals itself here to be impeccably antibacterial, using, strangely enough, all sort of dangerous stuff (radioactive uranium tops a long list) to boost the long term viability of art’s immune system and its ability to carry lasting meaning and value.
The retrospective—aptly titled Alibis—demonstrates that Polke’s magician act was a kind of excuse and/or a ruse, a kind of invisibility cloak that still keeps us from being too concerned about the possibility that he was an actual wizard, or better yet, some kind of he-who-must-not-be-named Dark Lord. I make no apology for allowing, of all characters, Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort to invade my frames of reference here, and I could go into detail about the “criminal” Polke having placed fragments of his broken soul in all manner of twisted horcruxes, or irresistible portkeys that transport us even after only a passing glance. (That, obviously, could be the drugs.) As it happens, Polke also shape shifts himself over and over. Right away, in the brilliant mini-retrospective that opens the show in the museum’s outsized atrium, he offers up his name as a constellation (“I’m a Star!”) in “Starry Heavens Cloth (Sternhimmeltuch)” (1964); then, a few rooms later, “Polke as Astronaut (Polke als Astronaut)” hangs directly above “Polke as Drug—Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe (Polke als Droge—Pulverisierter Polke im Glassröhrchen)” (both 1968), the former a goofball smallish painting on a patterned fabric likely produced for use in a boy’s room, and the latter a small watercolor and ink drawing on graph paper that could be misread (like many of the works at Werner) as some sort of sketch of a (pseudo) scientific observation. And while it may be a stretch to cast Polke as the namesake character depicted in a late “lenticular” painting like “The Illusionist (Der Illusionist)” (2007), which incorporates a plastic overlay that distorts its weirdly Victorian illustrational imagery, I was willing to make the jump, particularly after taking in just a few moments of all of the films that have been well woven into the retrospective’s mix, each time receiving priceless moments of Polke playing the cut up. I especially relished “The Beautiful Sigmar (Der schöne Sigmar)” (1971), a film by Lutz Mommartz in which Polke upends a New Year’s Eve party at the home of his artist friend and collaborator Christof Kohlhöfer, at one point treating another influential friend’s painting—a Blinky Palermo no less—as a seesaw, which, if you’re willing to go with it, speaks to the critical situation at that time (as well as ever since) of big things like abstraction, object making, and use-value. From all accounts, Polke respected Palermo’s work deeply despite Palermo’s unwavering devotion to the more utopian goals of early 20th-century abstraction, something to keep in mind when Polke is skewering it.Halbreich’s decision to stick to the chronology establishes that Polke was taking on big things from the very beginning. The first two galleries after the atrium create what I jotted down in my notes as a “Polke Arcade,” a flanerie-inducing procession that starts with a selection of early works on paper that restate the inventive diversity of the selection at Werner across from a progression of early paintings that establish the grounding of his “capitalist realism” in not only Dada but the expanse of German (art) history: from the pangs of wickedness of “The Sausage Eater (Der Wurstesser)” (1963) and “Chocolate Painting (Schokoladenbild)” (1964) to the somehow irreverent yet solemn “Dürer Hare (Dürer Hase)” (1970) that traces the familiar outline of the Old Master’s work with rubber bands wrapped around nails pounded into its tasteful gray fabric. Walking through these first galleries, it was made clear that Polke had a firm grasp of what he was taking on from the very beginning in both art and society, as evidenced in his imagery, of course, but also, just as (or even more) importantly in his use of techniques like the hand-painting of dot patterns as itself a kind of—as he put it—“atrocity.”
It is precisely the ways in which atrocity sticks to everything in Polke’s production as it relates to history and materiality that establishes his work as major. With that in mind, my major-masquerading-as-minor assessment is, on occasion, challenged by the oscillation between chaos and control that takes place from room to room, an alternation often embedded in individual works. For each situation where a series of paintings coalesce into a formidable and coherent body of work—for example, the nine paintings in gallery four from 1967 – 69 that deflate abstraction like “Modern Art (Moderne Kunst)” (1968) and “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! (Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke schwarz malen!)” (1969), or the six “Watchtower” paintings from 1984 – 88 that embed their loaded subject (the post-WWII German alibi “I didn’t see anything” referenced by Halbreich in her opening wall text echoes loudly here) in silver nitrate and various resins on canvas, fabric, and (in one case) bubble wrap—there are others that reinforce Polke’s mastery of the mash-up, unapologetic yet unwilling to be completely out of control. Gallery six kills in this regard: 21 works from 1969 – 78 jostle against each other, untitled porno gouaches next to photographs taken from the television of a tabletop soccer game next to other photographs of mushrooms next to still other photographs taken in Pakistan next to large action-packed hybrid works such as the tapestry-like “Mao” and “Alice in Wonderland (Alice im Wunderland)” (both 1972) and the banner-like “Supermarkets” (1976). For good measure there are also a few films. It is an irreconcilable room utterly resistant to the application of any consistent criteria, and it is hardly the only one. The level to which easy gestures on top of obvious jokes with non-stop self-indulgence adds up to drop dead seriousness is nothing short of awesome. (It was instructive to go upstairs to MoMA’s permanent collection galleries to take another look at Gerhard Richter’s cycle of 15 paintings “October 18, 1977” (1988) that are on view. They came across slightly less awesome than before, leading me to wonder if in the end Richter’s solutions are less resonant than Polke’s problems.)
At the preview, in response to my question about the exhibition’s potential impact upon art students who are, to my mind, looking more and more for a way out of the current situation of the art world (if not the situation everywhere else), Halbreich said that “this exhibition deals with the difficulty of being an artist,” and that “it should make people think before they make.” That being said, Polke’s work only works because it fuses hocus pocus with hokum to make things that remain as powerful and real as any make-believe that fully captivates a child. To dismiss it is to be a fool, but to take it too seriously is to not take a risk.
Halbreich’s decision to stick to the chronology establishes that Polke was taking on big things from the very beginning. The first two galleries after the atrium create what I jotted down in my notes as a “Polke Arcade,” a flanerie-inducing procession that starts with a selection of early works on paper that restate the inventive diversity of the selection at Werner across from a progression of early paintings that establish the grounding of his “capitalist realism” in not only Dada but the expanse of German (art) history: from the pangs of wickedness of “The Sausage Eater (Der Wurstesser)” (1963) and “Chocolate Painting (Schokoladenbild)” (1964) to the somehow irreverent yet solemn “Dürer Hare (Dürer Hase)” (1970) that traces the familiar outline of the Old Master’s work with rubber bands wrapped around nails