MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Sigmar Polke’s Art of Perplexity at MOMA

Sigmar Polke

I didn’t allow myself nearly enough time during my last trip to MOMA to dig into the enormous Sigmar Polke retrospective currently on view. It’s titled Alibis — not a recondite Latin phrase, but the plural of “alibi,” as in an exculpatory proof of absence from the scene of a crime.

The MOMA introduction explains further that “Polke studiously avoided any one signature style or medium; his method exemplified the definition of alibi, ‘in or at another place,'” and additionally contains a political connotation: “Polke grew up at a time when many Germans deflected blame for the atrocities of the Nazi period with the alibi ‘I didn’t see anything.'”

Alibis is also almost absurdly huge: 250 works across a wide (and unpigeonholeable) spectrum of media created or conjured into being by Sigmar Polke (1941-2010). Born in Lower Silesia, the provocative Polke was roughly of the same generation as heavyweights Anselm Kiefer (a few years younger than Polke) and Gerhard Richter (9 years older) — but inarguably in a realm all his own, even if he never settled on an identifiable style.

As New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl puts it in his glowing review: “With caustic humor and cultivated mystery, he could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase, and even from piece to piece…” (The near-homonym of Polke’s name with “polka” only enhances the absurdist humor that’s essential to this artist’s aura.)

The exhibit’s first installation, sprawling across part of the atrium on MOMA’s second floor, immediately perplexes as to the intended “tone” as it offers a quick bird’s-eye view of four decades of the eternally distancing, ever-skeptical Polke’s work and “themes.” Not that the roughly chronological layout of Alibis really matters, given how wildly he can dart from one concept to the next: from puncturing art historical purism to complicating his critique of West German consumer culture — “Capitalist Realism” — with an ironic, Pop Art play on the Soviet dogma of “realism.”

And the tone really does perplex, as you travel from high ’60s performance art and Me Decade mushroom psychedelia to imposing glass panels painted with soot. Polke himself had begun collaborating with MOMA’s associate director, Kathy Halbreich, to design the show before he died of cancer in 2010. Doubtless he would have insisted on an even more enigmatic layout and wilder cross-connections; apparently Polke objected to the chronological convention followed here.

Holland Cotter’s New York Times review captures the weird mix of temperaments well:

Yet even in these ominous pictures, he fools around, delights in deviance, frustrates interpretive closure. One watchtower is painted on garishly cheery floral fabric; another is done on Bubble Wrap. A third has been washed with a light-sensitive silver oxide solution that will darken to black over time, obliterating the image.

Sigmar Polke, (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida (The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, private collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Sigmar Polke, Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida (The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, private collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The reception has been especially fascinating, more than usual. Talk about diametric opposition. Here’s Michael Pepi, maintaining respectfully objective attitude in The New Criterion:

Polke worked on fertile ground for a provocateur… [T]he current show at MOMA further mystifies Polke, drawing his wide-ranging output deeper in line with reactions to modernity’s great shortcomings. Whether it be destructive ideologies, overdependence on technology, or even the abuses of history itself, Polke’s ability to move across not just media but also aesthetic positions is on rapt display.

Jed Perl at The New Republic devotes a lengthy and intense piece to his disappointment: disappointment at what he characterizes as a tame, “sociological” presentation but, more importantly, at the phenomenon of Polke himself as a leading “pompier” of today’s art scene. He suggests some comparisons with Salvador Dalí: for both, “style is a put-on job, an act — but an act pressed with such intensity that it takes on a weird, almost repellent authority.” (Perl co-opts the avant-gardists scornful term for the slick and popular establishment painters they sought to subvert.):

The Polke show is as interested in its own virtuosity — or in its own swaggering anti-virtuosity — as any exhibition I have ever seen… Pompier — and certainly the pompier of Polke — is a performance, and works of visual art are not primarily or essentially performances… I am held by some of what Polke has done, by the cleverness and the bravado and the sheer spectacle of it all. But I exit this retrospective that’s so aptly entitled “Alibis” with a deep sense of relief. No artist who really matters has ever left me feeling that way.

Lance Esplund at The Wall Street Journal finds himself even more repelled and has no doubt this is another example of the Emperor’s New Clothes:

Jester-of-all-trades, [Polke] was actually, according to the show’s curators, “masquerading as many different artists.” But instead of variety we get the same joke—dressed up here as a photograph; over there as a painting—played out over and over again… Deliberately disingenuous and ambiguous, Polke courted randomness through his appropriations and derisions.

Contrast that with Schjeldahl’s rapturous encomium:

[Alibis] is the most dramatic museum show of the century to date. It may also be the most important, if its lessons for contemporary art, both aesthetic and ethical, are properly absorbed.


Nearly everything he did reacted, somehow, against something. Celebrity was only one of the threats to the probity of his independence which required an emergency response. He was, and he remains, heroic.

And Maike Pollack at The Gallerist discovers a hopeful message as well:

Ms. Halbreich suggests that for the postwar painter, visual ambiguity represented a resistance to the ghosts of Germany’s wartime political narratives and the authority that accompanied them.

Polke’s paintings created a new terrain… In [his] chemistry and bubbles and ridged screens, we see the Internet with its endless depths of images welling up. What’s more, his paintings are not cynical; they re-enchant the world of images and the possibilities of picture-making.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition


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