Germany and its discontents produced many postwar artists who could have been predicted - Anselm Kiefer with his scorching historical pictures, Georg Baselitz with his angry upside-down figuration, Gerhard Richter with his cool, shape-shifting ironies – and one wild card: the offhand, inconsistent, messy trickster Sigmar Polke.
Polke died in 2010 and Alibis, his Tate Modern retrospective, attempts to pin down an original, destabilising presence who was always somewhere else: hiding behind the double exposure of his experimental films; out of his mind on hallucinogenic drugs; or, in a series of vibrant photographs here, posing in swaths of python skin. Thus Polke shed skins, identities and artistic approaches, making style a performative act not an expression of inner necessity.
Like his fellow German artists in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities, Polke distrusted everything – including his own virtuosity. In the five-metre “Paganini”, based on a 19th-century print of a composer dreaming of the Devil playing to him while he sleeps, Polke considers the relationship between genius and evil: swastikas swarm the surface and a fool juggles skulls that turn into radioactive signs. Polke’s build-up of images overlaid with cartoonish doodles and bravura brushwork collapses figurative into abstract, narrative into chaos.
Polke made art to fight “the madness of facts”, says his friend, critic Bice Curiger. Born in Silesia in 1941 into a large poor family who migrated to the Rhineland, Polke was initially apprenticed to a Düsseldorf glassmaker, and transparency is really the single leitmotif of his art. The earliest works here such as “Apparition of the Swastika” (1963) feature the Nazi insignia bursting from painterly gouaches, while proto-pop ballpoint pen drawing “Soap” alludes to desires to wash away the past.
“The Sausage Eater”, from the same year, punctures consumer complacency at Germany’s economic recovery: a tiny anaemic face guzzles, without pleasure, a never-ending line of thin brown links. In Tate’s excellent catalogue, curator Kathy Halbreich compares Polke’s lean, mean sausages to Roy Lichtenstein’s plump, triumphalist “Hot Dog”.
Polke’s 1960s “raster dot” compositions, painted freehand with perforated metal stencils to transform newspaper snaps into matrices of magnified swimming dots, paralleled Richter’s deadpan blur: both artists aped photomechanical processes to question the reliability of the image. In “Girlfriends” (“Freundinnen”, 1966), “Family”, “Doughnuts” and “Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald)”, the dots, vibrating as if in constant motion, were a perfect model for Polke’s oscillating vision of reality and refusal to finalise image or idea.
His next target was the fixed platitudes of modernism: the parodic minimalist paintings “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black”, “Constructivist”, which mocks his own raster dots, and the irreverent squiggles and loops in “Modern Art”. But it was only when he and Richter went their separate ways at the end of the 1960s (“Polke drifted away into the psychedelic direction and I into the classical,” according to Richter) that Polke truly took flight, almost literally in his first film “The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly” (1969), where he attaches strings to his limbs and, giggling, stretches out like Spider-Man.
Anyone who remembers 1970s Germany, caught between bourgeois boredom and hippy hedonism, will find Tate’s central gallery brilliantly evocative. Resonating throughout are competing soundtracks, featuring the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and Captain Beefheart from Polke’s weird films “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan”, shot on a road trip and focused on a performing monkey watched by an opium-addled crowd, and “How Long We Are Hesst/Looser”, where footage of Polke clowning about eating eggs is juxtaposed with TV debates on war criminal Rudolf Hess.
Paintings, too, turn anarchic: paint poured, dripped, scrawled on to fabrics or dot backgrounds and veiled with metallic spray animates the graffiti-like portrait “Dr Berlin” (1969-74) and the hookah-smoking caterpillar and luminous mushrooms in “Alice in Wonderland” (1972), while in “Bowery”, images of the homeless are obscured by folding photographic paper wet with chemicals to produce random spilled abstractions.
“Poison just crept into my pictures,” Polke said of the 1980s, when the spills enlarged into experiments with meteor dust and purple dye extracted from boiling snails, uranium and arsenic. In the “Watchtower” series, painted with silver nitrate, resin and enamel, Polke appropriated a doubly troubled image – the towers reference the camps as well as the border between East and West Germany – and subjected it to flux and degradation by replacing paint with photographic chemicals. A subtext of the title Alibis is deflection of blame, denial of history. How to paint the unseen? The show’s most extravagantly beautiful paintings, a pair of abstractions where resin combined with silver leaf or meteoric granulate glows gold, are called “The Spirits that Lend Strength are Invisible” (1988).
I am less persuaded by Polke’s digital works and 1990s use of photocopiers to distort compositions but, in the 2000s, he came full-circle, back to his training with glass, and began creating handmade lenses to overlay painted fabric surfaces. In the masterly “The Illusionist” (2007), semi-transparent layers disrupt overlapping images of a pair of illusionists and a blindfolded woman to produce theatrical enchantment.
It is a valedictory invitation into the bizarre looking-glass world of an artist who resisted all belief systems, but brought a consistent magic to disaffection and dissonance, and a lightness of being to conceptual painting, which over the decades liberated artists as varied as Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince, Rudolf Stingel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Brown, and makes this show essential viewing for young painters today.