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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 downstairs 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.

True to those ambitions, 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 turned 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.

Fairly certain. After all, it was a pleasure to get up close with late acrylic-on-fabric works such as The Illusionist and Seeing Rays. Along with a few other images, including the finely-wrought Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, these reminded me of the deviously strange illustration collages of Max Ernst--one of the few modernists whose flair for randomness and campiness is truly matched by Polke's. (These are also fine compensation for some of the 1960s works on paper, some of them derivative, others disposable.) There are also creations that show a little low-tech cleverness on Polke's part: images such as The Young Acrobat are printouts that Polke pulled through a photocopier, warping the figures with runny, wavering, hallucinatory expanses of black lines.

It turns out that Polke is very good at taking motifs we think we appreciate, think we understand, and using them to knock us off balance. And there are two sets of works in the MoMA installation that do just this with merciless impact. The first is a group of four soot-coated glass panels, which Polke completed 1990. The second is a nearby sequence of resin-on-fabric images of the same watchtower, each giant print executed in different colors and, in some cases, with different materials. Polke's usual political preoccupations may lie behind these, sure--those smoky panels may be meant to remind us (at a bit of a remove) of a Holocaust crematorium, and those watchtowers (initially little more than hunting outposts, later used both in concentration camps and on the East German border) stir up very conflicted sensations. In fact, everything in this stretch of Alibis stirs up conflicted sensations: Polke is commenting on atrocity, but is doing so by recalling art of unopposable beauty. At first glance, those glass panels look like Abstract Expressionist color fields executed in dirt and blood; at first glance, those watchtowers look like Impressionist canvases tormented by their own darkness and gaudiness. Here is Polke working decidedly in series, settling into "styles," showing more than a little reverence and breaking his own "no rules" rules.

Polke may not have liked my reasons for liking this room. Yet these works do him honor; instead of dancing circles around past art making, or glancing briefly at past art and trotting in the opposite direction, he finally fights the past--artistic and political--to a standstill. He wins, too. In an exhibition with so many rooms that you can canter right through--maybe you'll remember them, maybe you won't--this one installation can bring you to a soul-wrenching halt.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy

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