LONDON — In 2003, the last time that Tate Modern had an exhibition of work by Sigmar Polke, I walked around with the artist himself. Sadly he died in 2010, and was unable to cooperate in selecting works for “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010,” on view at the museum through February 8, 2015. Probably for that reason it is a quite different kind of show — arranged chronologically and including a wider variety of media, in particular a number of Polke’s little-known films. Whether it makes more sense of this enigmatic and elusive artist is another question.
Although I did not realize it when I met him, Polke almost never gave interviews. In fact, he almost didn’t give that one to me. I waited around for a long, long time after our appointment then finally gave up. I was walking out of the building when my phone rang and the press officer told me that Polke was ready to speak. He turned out to be charming, funny, and eloquent — given the limitation that his English was not quite fluent and my German fairly rudimentary.
However, this potential for confusion probably appealed to Polke, whose art was often concerned with mistakes such as printing errors and the distortions caused by moving the paper while photocopy is being made. A whole 30-part installation, “The Young Acrobat,” 2000, consists of photocopies of a print from an Edwardian book of games for children, which Polke pulled and twisted to produce a multiplicity of swirls, blurs, and smears. So this fairly ordinary image becomes a hall of mirrors, a forest of Rorschach blots, a fantasia on the theme of images blending in and out of chaos.
Polke liked fruitful confusion. As an artist, he has the reputation of being a prankster. To an extent, that is true. Some of his most engaging early paintings are jokes about abstract art. One, from 1968, has its title solemnly lettered on the canvas as if it were an illustration in a book: “Moderne Kunst” (Modern Art). The painting itself is a visual satire on the pretensions of abstraction to stylistic coherence and deeper meaning. The paint marks — including two triangles, a couple of meandering squiggles, and a splatter of mauve paint — are deliberately incompatible. Yet it is a beautiful little picture and one that reveals a distinctive sensibility.
Polke was like that: whimsical and serious at the same time. He was, he claimed to me, a sort of radical conservative. “I like my work to be informed by the art of the past, by my roots. I can’t forget what my ancestors have done. Though the results may look new, as far as I am concerned, as an artist I take an academic path.” Another put on? I don’t think so.
In 1986, he made a series of works derived from Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts, as quintessentially Teutonic a source as you could name. But from that master’s work he chose something eccentrically abstract: the extravagant flourishes, loops, and curlicues that can be seen over the heads of the virtues in “The Great Triumphal Cart,” 1522. In other words, he found in Dürer something that suited his own anarchic, post-modernist temperament.
At the same time, however, he revealed what Dürer and his contemporaries shared with him. In “Velocita-Firmitudo” — the example from the Dürer loop series in the Tate exhibition — Polke added drifts and ripples of black paint, resembling a mountain landscape or piled up snow. As a result you suddenly understand how much chaotic wildness there is in 16th-century German art — in the dense vegetation of Altdorfer’s forests or the proliferating fronds of Tilman Riemenschneider’s limewood sculpture, as well as Dürer.
As you might expect, Polke had a wayward career. According to the catalogue, he tried to suppress the value of his own work, perhaps because he objected to the functioning of the art market. Early on he founded a group called “Capitalist Realism” with Gerhardt Richter and others. This was a response to Pop art and a joke about Socialist Realism — Polke and Richter both lived their early lives in communist East Germany.
It was also, for Polke at least, an expression of his mixed feelings about consumerism. “The Sausage Eater (Der Wurstesser),” 1963, depicts a long chain of Würste, unwinding across the canvas like the contours on a map, ending at one corner in a mouth. It was, he told me, “critical in a way: you can eat too much and blow up too big.”
For much of the ’70s he seems to have been more or less out to lunch, living in a commune, travelling to exotic places, taking mind-altering substances. One of the novelties in the exhibition is the reintegration of this period, and the films Polke made in it. But the films add little except noise, neither they nor the most of the other works of the period are the equal of what he did before and afterwards.
Perhaps he needed that mind-expansion though. He returned to form in the ’80s. The later rooms of the exhibition are full of remarkable and original sights: pictures made with soot on glass, meteoric dust, and prehistoric tools. The impression you leave with is not of a consistently great painter — which was the feeling the Gerhardt Richter retrospective at the Tate gave — but of an idiosyncratic artist, who despite the pranks, had a beguilingly individual mind and eye.