Get confused is the first and last message of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at the Museum of Modern Art. And if you think, as I do, that some degree of continuing bafflement is a healthy reaction to art, this disorienting contact high of a show is for you.
Polke, who died in 2010 at 69, is usually mentioned in the same breath with two German near-contemporaries, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, as one of the great European male artists of the postwar years. Of the three, though, he was the most resistant to branding, and is still the hardest to get a handle on.
In media, he was all over the map: painting (abstract and figurative), drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, film, installation, performance, sound art; he did them all, often messy, counterintuitive combinations. Stylistically, he brushed up against Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism, only to lift their moves and mock them.
He had a thing about making art from weird materials: tawdry fabrics, radioactive pigments, liquid detergent, soot. He put the discipline in interdisciplinary under stress. His work can be daintily detailed and virtuosic, but it can also look polish-aversive and incomplete. Sometimes he seems to start a painting or a drawing, then stop, as if to say: You get the idea.
For a long time, museums and galleries didn’t know how to deal with him; that is, with all of him. The standard procedure was to isolate a slice of work that had some visual and thematic coherence: pictures sharing a color, say, or ones with lots of the hand-applied, Benday-style dots that the market pushed as a Polke signature. The prospect of a survey that brought the full range of his multifarious output together under one roof must have seemed daunting even to Polke himself. But that’s what MoMA has done in a show that fills all of its second-floor contemporary galleries, including the atrium, and then some.
The arrangement is mostly by date, though because Polke was an accumulator, a recycler and a mix-master of styles, that doesn’t give viewers a visual narrative line to follow. Nor have the curators — Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall of MoMA, and Mark Godfrey of the Tate Modern — provided object labels. Instead, and this an excellent idea, they’ve designed a free, gallery-by-gallery, work-by-work checklist, a kind of Baedeker for the perplexed that incorporates some useful commentary. (Ms. Halbreich’s catalog essay, by the way, is superb.)
Even with that, the show throws you right in at the deep end. The opening installation, in the atrium and first gallery, spans 40 years of Polke’s career, looks like a multiartist group show, and just says: Deal with it. And so, without a compass, you do, taking in at one sweep 1960s drawings of flying saucers and swastikas; jumpy films shot in Zurich and Papua New Guinea; a big, fluffy 2003 fabric collage titled “Season’s Hottest Trend”; a giant digital print tracing the routes of United States Predator drones after Sept. 11.
From this array, you learn that Polke’s art was sometimes antagonistically political, though its politics could be hard to decipher outside a very specific cultural context. A Pop-ish-looking 1960s painting of neatly folded dress shirts refers to the “economic miracle” that was restoring a defeated Germany to bourgeois prosperity. A companion picture in the same style — “Capitalist Realism,” Polke called it — of a minute figure sucking in sausages nails the new consumerism as a form of binge-eating-till-you-black-out, designed to induce amnesia about the wartime past.
That past was Polke’s past. He was born in 1941 into a German bourgeois family that was forced to move from German Silesia (now part of Poland) to Soviet-occupied East Germany before escaping to West Germany in 1953. As a teenager, he apprenticed in a stained-glass factory, then from 1961 to 1967 studied at the Arts Academy in Düsseldorf. There he befriended Mr. Richter, who, like many other students, was under the spell of Joseph Beuys. At once attracted by, and skeptical of, Beuys’s charisma, Polke pulled back and went his own way, which became the pattern of his life.
“Fathers are depressing,” Gertrude Stein said. Polke seemed to agree. So did the antiauthoritarian era during which he came into his own as an artist, and in which he immersed himself, living and working communally, engaging in love fests and drug fests, traveling, cameras always in hand, through the Middle East, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. He remained, in certain ways, an unreconstructed 1960s person to the end of his life, fascinated with esoteric philosophies, paranormal phenomena, alchemy and psychochemical exploration. These elements contributed to his outsider identity within the international art world and shaped his art.
A couple of galleries into the show, you come upon a kind of cosmopolitan hippie encampment. Films Polke shot in Pakistan and Brazil are playing. Hazy pictures he took of men on the Bowery line a wall. And there are some fantastic paintings and drawings that layer 19th-century engravings; fabrics printed with Gauguin’s South Seas beauties; references to “higher beings” (Blake, Goya, Dürer); and images of mushrooms and skulls.
In a show that has the variety and novelty of a souk, hierarchies of “value” evaporate. High versus low, modern versus traditional, art versus craft, genuine versus inauthentic: None of these, Polke suggests, are really opposites. And even art he derides he takes seriously. He lampoons the pretensions of painterly abstraction — its egocentricity, its political escapism — but he also sticks up for it. How could you not defend an art that the Third Reich condemned as “degenerate”?
Abstraction also gave Polke a pretext to go wild with the alchemic outré: Arsenic, meteorite dust, coffee and soap were precious work materials. And even in his abstraction, politics was never far away. A series of auralike photographs made by placing radioactive uranium on photographic plates had to have a loaded meaning for someone raised in the shadow of the Cold War. Semiabstract depictions of wooden watchtowers, traditional German hunting perches, take on inescapable associations with death camp architecture.
Yet even in these ominous pictures, he fools around, delights in deviance, frustrates interpretive closure. One watchtower is painted on garishly cheery floral fabric; another is done on Bubble Wrap. A third has been washed with a light-sensitive silver oxide solution that will darken to black over time, obliterating the image.
Accident, serendipitous or engineered, became the foundation for much of Polke’s late work: paintings based on commercial printing errors or on images the artist dragged across screens of copying machines. And in 2006, he went back to his beginnings with a commission for stained-glass window design from the Grossmünster cathedral in Zurich, home church to Huldrych Zwingli, an iconoclastic force in the Protestant Reformation.
Seven of Polke’s windows are devoted to the theme of the Creation, and he turned them into the equivalent of a 1960s light show: abstract compositions made from clusters of thin-sliced, odd-shaped, color-dyed agates that suggest cellular forms. You see them in a video at the end of the show, images of primal slime with a sunlit, mescaline glow.
Unlike Mr. Richter and Mr. Kiefer, Polke remains something of a puzzle when taken piece by piece. There are powerful things at MoMA, but also scraps, doodles, studies, toss-offs that can make you think, “Why am I looking at this?” It’s easy to envision a more tightly edited take on this artist, one that would make him look more ordinarily Great. But it turns out that his career is more interesting and unusual when seen episodically, mixed up, en masse. He has this, and other things, in common with Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose survey at MoMA PS 1 last fall feels, in retrospect, like a bookend to the Polke show.
Both artists are perplexing in similar ways. Their art is both protean and of a piece, riddled with weaknesses — fussbudgety viewers can have a field day with Polke; they did with Kelley — that add up to a strength. Museums want masterpieces, but Polke, though he produced some, was into process, not perfection. Art history wants wrap-ups, final accounts. The Polke retrospective is such an account, written with commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, parentheses, but no periods, no full stops.