BWW Reviews: Lots of Versatility, and a Dash of Controversy, in SIGMAR POLKE: ALIBIS
I'd like you to perform an experiment. Go to the contemporary galleries at the Museum of Modern Art, walk around for forty-five minutes without reading anything, and then come back with a rough estimate of how many different artists are currently on display. Twenty? Fifty? Sorry, but it's all one guy, German painter, printer, draughtsman, photographer, videographer, and stained glass window artisan Sigmar Polke. He concocted everything from those newsprint collages to those semi-pornographic doodles to those strange matrix huts, the ones made out of wood lattices and ornamental potatoes. All 250 works on display--all of them are his.
Until August 8, the atrium and much of the lower floors at MoMA will be devoted to this incredibly multi-faceted artist. Sigmar Polke: Alibis has been billed as the first "comprehensive retrospective" of Polke, and was organized by Kathy Halbreich at MoMA and Mark Godfrey at Tate Modern (where the show will move this October) with plenty of input from Polke himself. (Sadly, he died of cancer in 2010.) Opinions of Polke will perhaps always be mixed: since he broke onto the progressive art scene in the 1960s, he has been construed as everything from an endlessly inventive technician to a bitingly smart ironist to a pathetic knockoff of Andy Warhol. This exhibition, which samples almost every medium that Polke sampled and tries its best not to single out Polke "masterpieces," lets you judge for yourself. There is no question that Halbreich and Godfrey admire their subject; you may not share an ounce of this esteem, but you should appreciate Sigmar Polke: Alibis as a generous and genuinely ambitious display--part seminar, part thrift shop, part funhouse, all Polke.
The exhibition catalog is as good as a catalog can get: the reproductions are large and abundant, and the essays generally capture Polke's methods and mentality without inspecting him or interpreting him to a fault. Apparently, the man traveled everywhere--Brazil, Thailand, Egypt, Afghanistan, and more--and had a working knowledge of everything from world religion to minerology to Renaissance painting. He is undoubtedly more famous, though, for other things--for experimenting with psychedelic drugs, and for never, despite the range of his travels and the breadth of his readings, losing sight of the alienation he felt growing up in post-World War II Germany. Born in 1941, Polke was only a child when Hitler died, but as an artist Polke grappled repeatedly with the wretched legacies of the Third Reich.
How did all this influence Polke's output? Early on, he created Pop-ish works that do in fact recall Warhol and Lichtenstein, except that Polke had an affinity for bland white spaces and minor disproportions--features much harder to find in the carefully-balanced compositions of these two Americans. He then moved on to much more clotted, collage-like images, sometimes complete with fragments of illustrations or tacky Gauguin reproductions. There are also a few of Polke's own gouache cartoons in Alibis, many of them adorned with nude women and massive phalluses. Looking at these is like reading the dirty jokes in a Shakespeare script: fun enough, though don't much lesser artists sling the same smut almost as well?
Still, Polke's ribaldry is charming because it is effortless; in other cases, Polke expended time, material, and MoMA real estate on works that are ponderous, concept-heavy duds. Sometimes, the proportions are to blame: multimedia compositions like Alice in Wonderland and Mao would have worked fine in small formats, but Polke's determination to turn these images into hundred-square-foot behemoths turns them muddled and desperate. There are other big throwaways--including Season's Hottest Trend, the sixteen-foot dud right near the entrance--along with harmless doodles and presumably ironic (but often vapid) paintings of swastikas. Again, as a piece of art education, Alibis is invaluable, but as a spectacle, as an experience, it is quite haphazard and occasionally plain dull. While I would probably be kicking myself to this day if I had missed Chris Burden: Extreme Measures at the New Museum (tight and spectacular) or Jay DeFeo: The Rose at the Whitney (even tighter, even more spectacular), I'm fairly certain that missing Sigmar Polke: Alibis wouldn't have given me the same kind of pain.