Tate Modern’s retrospective takes up 14 rooms. And it’s barely enough to contain the messy, druggy, unfathomably elusive and wondrous art of Sigmar Polke.
Entire artistic careers might be made from small aspects of Sigmar Polke’s multifarious art, which now fills 14 rooms at Tate Modern. The third Tate show devoted to Polke in 20 years, Alibis is a compendious and at times bewildering romp through a career that began in the early 1960s and ended with Polke’s death in 2010.
Dealing with Polke’s legacy has only just begun. There is a lot of messy unfinished business, and much of it is here. As well as paintings, there are films of early performances and games with potatoes, weirdly exposed and manipulated photographs, a slide-show room of photocopy experiments, tables of sketchbook drawings reproduced and flicked-through on iPad tablets.
Beginning in the early 1960s with a perverse German pop art celebrating sorry and unglamorous foodstuffs, plastic buckets, socks and sausages, Polke was from the beginning (and as one of Joseph Beuys’s favourite students in Düsseldorf) as critical as he was playful. Even Beuys’s shamanism and pseudo-mysticism became a butt for later parody, even though Polke was as much attracted as repelled by the other-worldly.
Contaminating errant abstractions with half-hidden swastikas and dizzy, cartoonish swipes and spirals, Polke went on to conduct beyond-the-grave séances with William Blake and to commune with higher beings, who, one painting famously tells us, commanded Polke to “Paint the right-hand corner black”. Fanciful arabesques copied from Albrecht Dürer engravings, Goya’s Caprichos and hippy-trail home movies all played their part in Polke’s art.
“My mind cracked like custard,” sings the late Captain Beefheart, in the concert soundtrack Polke used for a film which captures the artist fooling around in the countryside commune where he lived during the 1970s, and aiming a camera at a TV documentary about imprisoned Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. Another film takes us to an opium den in Pakistan, and to scenes featuring a performing monkey, and a bear being baited by dogs for public entertainment. Polke sees it all, while the Grateful Dead limber up and play along.
As with everything he did, there are layers of subtext, even in these little films. The exhibition does at time wander between retrospective and visual biography. A slightly reduced version of a show that began at MoMA in New York, the Tate’s version is more coherently arranged, though a degree of incoherence was integral to Polke’s strategy. It did, perhaps, reflect the man. Polke himself collaborated in the very early planning stages of this exhibition, which he devised as being based not on a chronological approach, but on what he called the “problematics” of his art, and proposed what curator Kathy Halbreich describes as a “slightly diabolical” mix of works. Without the problematics, and his diabolic interests in painting’s alchemy and in drugs, the anarchy and order of painting, there is no Polke.
Polke was nothing but wayward. He played-up the part, in early, hilarious films (one has him up to his well-shod shins in a bowl of water, with cucumbers floating around his trousers), and in photographs of the artist emerging from a giant snakeskin, as though he has been regurgitated, reborn.
But like the drugs, I feel that Polke’s art is better in somewhat smaller, condensed doses, even if the derangment of the senses, both chemically and optically, were always part of his game. All this could be tiresome, were not Polke’s restless energies capable of throwing up series and groups and individual works of such subtlety, unexpected pleasures and ruminative, dark complexities.
The great Watchtower series from the 198Os, with their structures recalling border posts, concentration camps and hunters’ lookouts, and the huge, resinous paintings with their yawing, curdled images derived from old engravings, seem to be messages from a past that refuses to go away.
This unfathomable artist was much more than just another painter. His difficulty is also what is so tantalising. Like many of the unstable, fugitive and light-sensitive pigments he sometimes used, and those layers of brown, resinous murk, as soon as you think you see him clearly, his art takes a turn and eludes you once again. His elusiveness was deliberate, a way to stay free.
Polke’s paintings could be cantankerous and awkward and weirdly ugly, and could also leave you standing on the brink of beauty, wallowing in gorgeous colour. There were surfaces as delicate and ephemeral as scent (using, in one work, a purple dye derived from slugs, painted on silk), and others gloopy with thick polyester resin, which revealed and obscured layers of buried and overpainted imagery, depending on where you stand and how the light falls.
Experiment and play were at the heart of his art, but were backed up by an encyclopedic and inquiring mind and a curiosity about how paintings have been and might be made. Even his later near-monochromes and a painting of a lump of gold edge towards a kind of magisterial abstraction (it has a grandeur that Robert Motherwell or Helen Frankenthaler could dream of, but never quite achieve). But he never bought into the kitsch of the latter-day sublime.
Polke reveled in mistakes and imperfections, sudden lurches in tempo or the shearing of material and image, the places where something unexpected breaks in. This was real magic. He knew painting was laughable and exhausted, and that that was as the place he had to begin. Polke was never only a painter, even when, and perhaps especially when, he was only painting. It was all a magnificent folly.