The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) current offerings include, just possibly, the world’s most brilliant student of a certain kind of art. The student would be the German postmodernist Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), and the work in question would be pieces dating from after approximately 1960, when art was turning away from a belief in the power of expression to examinations of that expression, and in fact of the entire role of art. Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, one of the largest exhibitions ever installed by the museum, includes more than 250 works filling four gallery spaces. Organized in New York by Kathy Halbreich, an associate director at MoMA, it will travel to the Tate Modern and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne.
Like many retrospectives, Alibis impresses for the sheer amount of work. But it astonishes even more for its extraordinary variety of materials and methods. An insatiably experimental artist, Polke drew upon almost every art movement of the 1960s: Minimal, Fluxus, kinetic, process, conceptual, and especially Pop. His two-dimensional works incorporate, among other items, comics, cheap patterned fabrics, bubble wrap, soot, meteorite dust, and a dye painstakingly extracted from snails. Other works feature double-exposed films, lenticular screens, videos, prints from uranium-irradiated plates, and stained-glass windows.
Uniting it all is the artist’s acerbic, dispassionate eye. We witness fragments of modern life drily recapitulated in raster-dots; impoverished Pakistani street scenes filmed, without evident empathy or judgment; swastikas (the ever-shadowing symbol of his generation) toyed with, without obvious signs of either rancor or regret. Polke not only withholds emotion commitment; he qualifies almost every implication. No instance of prettiness is left unscourged, no cartoon remains merely comedic, hardly a gesture escapes genericization or deflection. He never, in short, closes the loop of belief.
One is likely to leave this installation both intrigued and exhausted by his constancy of temperament. But there are many rewards along the way. His affectless execution increases the impact of paintings like “Negro Sculpture” (1968), in which the image of an African sculpture — mute, compact, mysterious — floats against a background dotted by kitschy, children’s toy animals on one side, and by Abstract-Expressionist squiggles on the other. The impersonal technique amplifies the image’s caustic undercurrents: which, if any, of our three notions of elemental expression were ever valid?
The painting “Modern Art” (1968), an angst-stripped remake of Ab-Ex, both amuses and unsettles. It includes, in terms of style, every standard ingredient of abstract painting — vigorous gestures, contemplated shapes, a splash of deep texture, a spiraling flourish — but drained of all the robustness of any self-respecting abstraction. Though handsome in style, it clunks like the tone-deaf text produced by translation software. The artist hardly needed to have added the white margin and caption at the bottom; it’s already pure textbook cuisine.
Even though streamlined by Polke’s considerable talents and sophistication about art trends, such works simmer with a genuine sense of alienation. If you like, there’s a passion to his dispassion. Some of his works even attain, at least at a glance, something like visual grace. “People Circle” (1968) lightly commands a whole portion of a wall with lengths of string radiating from a small central photo. All the tendrils extend to tiny photo portraits, which together form a perfect, surrounding circle some eight feet across. At first, the piece may seem like a celebration of the family of humankind, with the arcs of the string — that most casual of materials — serving as a sensuous metaphor for resilient connections. But dig deeper (and the uninitiated will need to read the footnotes of one of the catalogue essays to get the full picture), and you’ll realize that Polke borrowed the tiny photos from a Nazi manual on eugenics. Grace suddenly becomes monstrosity.
Indeed, Polke was nothing if not a master of the urgently elliptical. He even argued for a non-chronological installation of Alibis — he lived long enough to provide input during its planning stages — but this wish was wisely overruled. The mostly chronological hanging allows the flow of topical circumstances — the physical and psychic reconstruction of Germany, the turmoil of the ’60s, the nuclear arms race, Chernobyl — to impose a semblance of order on the artist’s freewheeling production. Unfortunately, some of the attempts to contextualize overreach. One can believe that Polke’s 1963 sketch of simply a bar of soap might refer to the gas chambers (which were disguised as showers), as Kathy Halbreich asserts in one of the catalogue essays. But the claim that the painting titled “Purple” (1986) necessarily refers to the global domination of German dye manufacturers is harder to swallow.
Many of the later works are mixed-media pieces with evocatively clouded textures, or bold, cacophonous combinations of paint, cartoons, photographs, and printed fabrics. Polke’s connoisseurship of exotic crafts delivers (sometimes all too efficiently) effects ranging from the raucous to the ethereal. The representational works tend to shed provocations left and right: multiple Supermen calmly browse supermarket shelves under an explosion of colorful geometric shapes and floating skeletons; tiny swastikas swarm, and skulls mutate into radiation symbols, in a remake of a 19th-century print of a devil fiddling before a recumbent man. One wall text tells of Polke’s “persistent questioning of what we see,” but given his chameleon-like fluency in styles and strategic subversions, Polke is really investigating something a little different: how we see ourselves seeing. As is the case with Warhol, it’s the “look” of culture, more than the actual appearance of things, that compels him.
What’s not to like, or at least to appreciate, walking through this existentialist cornucopia? Well, it could be pointed out that that while some pieces, like the mixed-media “Printing Error” (1986), which vividly sets an irregular patch of dots against red, black, and tan verticals, churn with formal vigor, Polke’s expressive means increasingly resemble those of a graphic designer’s. That is, he articulates more and more often through stylistic devices — seductive textures and patterns, strategies of marks — than compositional forces. It’s what produces the disarmingly clichéd effect of “Modern Art,” but elsewhere it seems more a matter of laid-back utility. Though replete with ideas, his drawings tend to remain doodles; collaged snippets of text (“Sloppy in detail” and “Dark and ice cold”) beg for relevance in one untitled work from after 1982, but its single, arbitrary scribble of ink adds no visual weight. Tellingly, his work contains less formal rigor than a number of modernists with whom he shows some stylistic affinity: Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Combines-period Robert Rauschenberg.
In other words, the perfect student of post-1960 art turns out to be an indifferent pupil of all pre-1960 art. The low points of the show are, in fact, Polke’s references to the Masters: the ink-on-graph-paper work “Construction Around Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmar Polke,” (1969), which charts, in ratios meant to suggest the Golden Mean, the high points of Leonardo’s career (and measures them against Polke’s own); the multimedia piece “Velocitas-Firmitudo” (1986), which enlarges the incidental flourish from the lettering in a Dürer print and surrounds it with broad, abstract washes of silver oxide pigment. Neither piece begins to deal with the expressive power of the master’s original works. It’s as if these great artists were simply famous for being famous.
Museumgoers will debate Polke’s achievement. Does it represent a savvy assessment of — and a necessary alienation from — the zeitgeist of postwar Germany, and contemporary western culture in general? There’s no doubt that there’s something striking at the core of his lifework. It resonates with a peculiar, plangent disaffection. It bristles, tirelessly, with pointed references — the points so multiplied and layered that the viewer is carried along by the drift of his caustic eye. And it’s certainly the kind of art that suits a postmodern era favoring conceptual vitality over pictorial rigor.
Or, does Polke’s lifework reflect an ignorance of deeper possibilities of art? The vast visual evidence of Alibis encourages one to believe that Polke was an artist quite uninterested in how someone like Goya surpassed his imitators, or how Piet Mondrian or Schwitters transcended their contemporaries — and how a discipline unique to art connects their spirits. By long-term standards, Polke comes off as a brilliant, renegade graphic artist at furious play. His observations may be bitingly original, but his expectations of art low, as if he considered it no more than a Rorschach test, an artisanal launching point for cerebral adventures.
In any event, the Polke revealed by Alibis is an artist totally of his time: skeptical, querulous, studious, driven, endlessly curious, and inventive in style and technique. He may even seem the complete artist, if you quarantine from view all great pre-1960 art, from Giotto to de Kooning. If you don’t, then Polke’s lifework acquires a different aspect. The encodings and signifiers and indexical signs become themselves the alibis for an artist with formidable talents but a surprisingly narrow view of his field. Sometimes, sophistication and provincialism go hand in hand.