Sigmar Polke
The Burlington Magazine
David Carrier
July 2014

WHAT A DEMANDING fate – to be a German modernist! The Nazi regime halted the development of the modernist tradition within Germany, dismantling the museum collections and forcing many artists and art historians into exile. Thus, after the Second World War, to grapple with this dramatic historical break was an extraordinary challenge. When questioned about their blame for the Nazi atrocities, Germans commonly used the alibi: ‘I didn’t know about it’: hence the title Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010 of the exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (to 3rd August).  Born in Silesia, Polke (1941–2010) lived in Soviet-occupied East Germany from 1945 until 1953, when his family moved to West Germany. ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’: Theodor Adorno’s much cited statement is relevant, surely, also to painting. How is it possible, it needs to be asked, for a German painter to work without alibis in the aftermath of this terrifying history?

Although Polke’s work has been prominently displayed in American galleries and museums for two decades, this is the first systematic survey. Only now can we realize how various he is, and how hard to pin down. Filling the Atrium and ten marvellously high, spacious galleries on MoMA’s second floor, this exhibition includes more than 250 works of art – paintings, photographs, films, sculpture, drawings, prints, television productions and a film of his stained-glass windows for a Zürich church. Here is an opportunity to see the astonishingly wide-ranging scale of his art, and to recognise the sheer virtuosity of his employment of these many media. And, although Polke is not the sort of artist who displays a straightforward stylistic growth, you come away with a relatively clear vision of the logic of his development. 
In the 1960s Polke gathered some visual resources, transforming them to suit his personal concerns. Raster drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) (Rasterzeichnung (Porträt Lee Harvey Oswald)) (Fig.81) borrows a technique of image-making from American Pop art, but where Lichtenstein and Warhol painted their Benday dots mechanically, Polke made this drawing by hand, dipping an eraser in paint and using it as a stamp. Like these Americans, Polke too was interested in depicting consumer goods – Plastic tubs (Plastik-Wannen) (1964) is a good example – and in appropriating images from popular culture; the source of Girlfriends (Freundinnen) (1967) is a magazine advertisement showing the German actress Elke Sommer. And like them, he borrows word balloons from comic strips, as in ‘Less Work, More Pay!’ (‘Weniger Arbeit, mehr Lohn!’) (1963), which is a crude ballpoint drawing. But these American Pop artists did not make images as bizarre as his enormous The ride on the Eight of Infinity III (The motor cycle headlight) (Die Fahrt auf der Unend lichkeits -Acht III) (1969–71), a drawing which superimposes a headlight on a cityscape with outlines of bodies in the background, in a hallucinatory scene covered with dripped motorcycle grease. 
Polke borrowed, also, from modernist abstraction. Minus the words Higher beings commanded: paint the upper-right corner black! (Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke Schwarz malen!) (1969) would be a very pure abstraction, but the title painted along the bottom edge mocks any appeal to spiritual impulses. Just as he blurs the distinction between abstraction and figuration, so he uses both words and images as visual resources. Modern art (Moderne Kunst) (Fig.82) catalogues the familiar gestures of abstract art, treating the vocabulary created by Kazimir Malevich and other Russian modernists with no more reverence than the kitsch materials frequently employed in his paintings. When young and poor, Polke sometimes used curtains as canvases, as well as painting on patterned fabric as in The palm painting (Das Palmen-Bild) (1964). 
In the 1980s, Polke experimented with image-making techniques. He used silver bromide to create paintings that blacken slowly with exposure to light. Watchtower (Hochsitz) (Fig.83), a relatively straightforward image by his standards, shows a watchtower like those that guarded both the Nazi concentration camps and the borders of East Berlin. It is painted on fabric stitched together, which makes the tower appear disjointed. And in the Watchtower II (Hochsitz II) (1984–85), he used silver, silver oxide and synthetic resin, so that the tower appears to be glowing as you move around the picture. Polke’s grand ambition, the driving force behind this experimentation, was to make extraordinary meaningful art – about everything. He wanted to comment on alchemy, the Holocaust; on pornography; on the prosperous consumer economy of his country; he wanted his art to reflect his trips to Afghanistan, North Africa and Indonesia; his relationships with Joseph Beuys and his other German peers; his drug experiences, interest in old masters and readings of  
physics; his playful use of photocopying machines; and, after 9/11, the American war on terrorism. But, where a traditional political artist would employ figurative images, for Polke no image could be adequate to his demands. In truth, no art could be – always he was trying to exceed the limits of painting, seeking to make it do something that it cannot do. No wonder he said, ‘it cannot be the task of the painter to investigate whether something is good or bad, and to judge’.
Eighteen years ago, MoMA organised a survey exhibition of the work of Morris Louis.  His supremely harmonious abstractions expelled any allusions to politics. Like Matisse, he wished art to be concerned solely with ‘Luxe, calme et volupté’. (Early on he included swastikas in some pictures, but they were not in that show.) Polke, too, was deeply involved with the processes of making abstractions: brushing, pouring and scattering. But how different are the results: Polke really is the antithesis of Louis. In place of unity, he offers multiplicity; instead of beautiful simplicity, sensory-overload; and, it must be said, instead of lucidity, self-imposed confusion. Polke can create astonishingly beautiful pictures – The spirits that lend strength are invisible V (Otter Creek) (1988) is marvellous. But usually he refuses to provide aesthetic satisfaction. Louis made very pure pictures – Polke wants art to aspire to do everything, which means that no synthesis is possible, not even in single works. The difference here is not merely a reflection of diverse national visual cultures. Recently MoMA has mounted exhibitions of other contemporary German artists such as the travelling show of Anselm Kiefer (1988), and Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting (2002). But these artists were much less challenging than Polke. 

The massive catalogue contains essays by nineteen authors, as if no one individual knew enough to describe Polke. It presents a great deal of information, too much perhaps, in an unwieldy format. But the ‘Exhibition Guide’, distributed in the exhibition, is essential. Summarising Polke’s career, it takes the place of wall labels. In the catalogue, the co-curator Kathy Halbreich writes that Polke’s ‘stubborn destabilizing of the merest suggestion of fixed meaning sometimes scares me’.  That is also my reaction. As much as I admire the sheer intensity of Polke’s ambition, in the end I find his art excessively meaningful, even if the meanings of his images never add up, as might be the intention. This is perhaps why his art attracts so much attention, but I remain unconvinced that it constitutes a satisfying political or artistic statement.