An Endless Experiment: The Sigmar Polke retrospective at MoMA

“Watchtower (Hochsitz),” by Sigmar Polke, 1984

The great trinity of major postwar German artists is generally reckoned to include Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke, who all wound up studying at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where Joseph Beuys was the presiding shamanistic presence. The three might well be named elegance, agony and experiment.

Richter, after fleeing the East two months before the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, settled in Düsseldorf and on refugee assistance enrolled at the Kunstakademie. Perhaps the most admired living painter in the world today, his work ranges from soft-focus photorealism to landscapes to raw abstractions. Kiefer studied informally with Beuys in the 1970s and has become known for searching, collective portraits of figures from German literature and history and for his later large-scale, often immense landscapes that confront the torments of the country’s recent past.

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Sigmar Polke, born in 1941 in Silesia, fled with his family to Thuringia in East Germany in 1945 and then again in 1953 to West Berlin, settling finally in the Rhineland. From 1961 to 1967 he studied at the Kunstakademie, also much influenced by Beuys but equally wary of him (rightly so, in my view). Of the three, he was the last to become well known in the West and still is the hardest to categorize.

Now, with his first major retrospective, “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Aug. 3, there is a signal opportunity to meet him in all the media he practiced—painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and film, collage, printmaking, television and performance. (The show will soon travel to the Tate Modern in London and then to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.)

Kathy Halbreich, associate director of the Modern, began planning the exhibition in 2008 with Polke himself, who objected to giving any sort of chronological order to his work. But his death in 2010 has allowed her, mercifully for most visitors, to impose a rough chronology on the show. “Alibis” has a double reference, recalling the common excuse for the horrors of the Third Reich—“I didn’t see anything”—and also the artist’s propensity, whenever his work became identifiable in some way, to move immediately in a different direction.

From the beginning Polke was skeptical of all authority, distrusted definition and preferred the random to the realized. With an unbridled appetite for experience and experiment, he delighted in unexpected outcomes when developing films or mixing minerals to use in paintings. Like his fellow students at Düsseldorf in the early 1960s, he was fascinated by the new Pop Art coming from across the Atlantic (and later by Conceptualism and Minimalism) but also repelled by the impending American hegemony. He filled innumerable notebooks, tossed off cartoonish drawings and aped Roy Lichtenstein, all the while lamenting “how dependent we are on existing forms, how unfree our actions and thoughts are…continuously resorting to what already exists.”

Few modern artists have had so many alter egos—a palm tree, a doppelgänger, an astronaut or a particle creeping along the Berlin Wall. But his work came into its own in the late 1960s in dialogue with Modern Art. A famous painting by him with that name from 1968 mixes typical gestures from the language of abstraction in order to subvert the style, while acknowledging his ambivalent affection for it. Polke’s “Negro Sculpture,” also from 1968, characteristically reprises the discovery of African art by modernists but here on the plainest of patterned fabric. Nearby a tumult of jostling faces in watercolor on paper is overlaid with a wooden grid studded with potatoes—as much a staple for Germans as for the Irish.

It is harder still to detect a direction in his work from the 70s, when overlaid visions of everyday life, heightened by drugs and altered states of consciousness, led to a proliferation of disparate production. He made trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon, visited New York for the first time in 1973 and that year bought a farm in Wittich, near Cologne, where countless friends came to collaborate with him.

A number of masterful large pieces stand out from these years, in particular “Against the Two Superpowers—For a Red Switzerland” (1976), in spray paint and newsprint on canvas, a match for the best of Robert Rauschenberg’s great silkscreens. The other is “Mao” (1972), the first of Polke’s paintings to enter an American museum (the Modern bought it in 1982) and to my mind a more complex and mysterious painting by far than Warhol’s “Mao” of the same year.

After a year of travel from 1980 to 1981 Polke returned to painting, though not, of course, with any single style; his experiments with materials and process were endless. “It’s the procedures in and for themselves that interest me,” he wrote. “The picture isn’t really necessary.” For the 1988 Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh he made a suite of five large canvases (two are at the Modern), scattering meteoric dust over one immense pale gold and gray piece and pulverized Neolithic arrowheads over another in beige and rust. The series was called “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible,” and very little art was made in the 1980s that was at once as visually ravishing and politically subversive. (The title came from a Native American proverb, evoking both the destruction of indigenous peoples and Polke’s interest in spiritualism.)

This exhaustive exhibition will border on exhausting for many viewers. There are too many sketches, doodles, raw films and dashed-off provocations (some are hilariously but embarrassingly pornographic)—more biographical data than artistic legacy.

But wait. Here is Polke’s last major project: the commission he won in 2006 to do 12 windows for the Grossmünster Protestant Cathedral in Zurich, Switzerland. The Romanesque cathedral, since 1524 a major seat of the Protestant Reformation, has beautiful high windows in blazing red tones that Augusto Giacometti created on the theme of the Nativity for the choir in 1932.

Polke’s plan, completed in 2009 just seven months before his death in 2010, has seven abstract windows on the theme of creation, made of dyed and thinly sliced agate, and five figurative ones on individual Old Testament figures done in stained glass. Represented at the Modern by a 10-minute slideshow, they are individually ravishing and as an ensemble a triumph that may lead a good many visitors to rethink the exhibition as a whole. An artist of such finesse with materials and form challenges too easy an assessment of him. Let me look again, for example, at his enigmatic, ominous yet also whimsical “Watchtowers,” you think. He must have more to reveal than I had realized.

On my second visit, dazzled again, I paused for a moment before a final painting nearby that resembles the Milky Way swept as with one divine brush across a black ground. “Gorgeous, isn’t it?” said an elegant woman also contemplating it. “At first I hated his work,” she continued, “and then he brought me to tears.”

“Well, that works,” I could almost hear Polke say.

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