Bluntly put: this event should not be missed. The first comprehensive overview of the multifaceted German artist Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), the exhibition dominates MoMA’s 2nd floor atrium and 10 subsequent rooms. Consisting of more than 250 works, it is one of the largest ever mounted at the museum. A rich catalogue accompanies the exhibition: Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010, edited by Kathy Halbreich with Mark Godfrey, Lanka Tattersall, and Magnus Schaefer. To facilitate engagement, visitors are provided with a 32-page guide, containing all pertinent label information, leaving the walls purified for visual reception. Text, so much a part of Polke’s art, then is left aesthetically integral. The exhibition will travel to the Tate Modern in London from October 1, 2014 through February 8, 2015, and then to Cologne’s Museum Ludwig March 15 to July 5, 2015.
The viewer is confronted by painting, photography, performance, film, drawing, prints, and sculpture. In many ways it is too much to take in—invariably many more questions are raised than answered—including “what is art of the later 20th and early 21st century, and, more poignantly, what do we learn of the conflicted nature of collective memory and individual response in Germany after the self-imposed cataclysm that was World War II?” The curators have aggressively titled the enterprise “Alibis,” suggesting, as they acknowledge, “deflection of blame.” Polke, of course was born into a war, as child of his generation exposed to the physical deprivation of conflict and its aftermath. At the age of ten he moved with his family from Eastern Germany to Willich, located west of Düsseldorf and thirty kilometers from the Dutch border. His early training included apprenticeship in a stained glass studio, after which, in 1961, he entered the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. There he collaborated with Konrad Fischer-Lueg and Gerhard Richter in 1963. Richter’s artistic journey in many ways parallels Polke’s in its malleability.
The show has an extensive array of Polke’s work, all quite provocative, and also sad in many ways. The artist interminably questions the commonly desired trappings of success—more money, more things, more power, exactly the litany of “good” that has permeated debate in the United States in recent years. The Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) that characterized Germany in the 1950s elicited a counter claim by Polke and Richter. In 1963 they collaborated in the formation of a style that they labeled Capitalist Realism; its deliberately ambiguous presentation of image functioning as a counterpoint to Socialist Realism and also to western Pop Art. The movement addressed a media-dominated society and the malleability of veracity. These themes permeate the exhibition where we are confronted with references to newspapers, posters, television, film, an even the printed word. The introduction in MoMA’s atrium juxtaposes the artist’s 20-foot Police Pig (1986), acrylic on canvas and his 21-foot The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Quaeda (2002), a digital print. The artist’s shift between mechanical production and hand-applied paint announces the artist’s concern with appropriation and the reception of a mechanized culture by differing global populations.
Beginning in 1970 Polke taught at the Hochschule für bildende Kunst in Hamburg and in 1977 was named professor, a position he kept until 1991. He also travelled widely, in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1974 and later in Mexico and Australia, all contributing to his confrontation of western, media-driven culture and indigenous myth and ritual. His thirteen films in the exhibition frequently refer to these travels and to his reaction to social conditions. In his photograph series Bowery of 1973 he explained that he “incorporated all the mistakes, the spots that crop up when you’re developing and enlarging in a way that interprets the picture” to evoke the squalid environment of his subjects. He shot In Search of Bohr-mann Brazil and its Consequences, 1975-76 while participating in the São Paulo Biennale. The films plays with concepts of the physics of light developed by Niels Bohr and references to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary who reportedly escaped to South America. Polke’s intelligence and, thankfully, playfulness are everywhere evident. Irreconcilable materials are brought together, as in Dürer Hare, 1970, where elastic bands stretching between nails evoke the iconic image of Albrecht Dürer’s hare amidst tufts of grass.
A signature element is Polke’s work includes images painted or screened on printed fabric, suggesting homage to the ready-made and the ubiquity of the everyday. Fabric appears in his series of Watchtowers 1984-85 (six exhibited here, including loans from Bard College, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Museum of Art). They are monumental in scale, possibly threatening, and yet formally eloquent. The towers suggest those surveying the “death strip” that separated East and West Berlin, imbedded in the contemporary consciousness of Germany. It was only in 1989 that East Germany retracted the injunction against free passage, and a year later the wall was systematically dismantled.
It seems appropriate in this context to reflect on Gerhard Richter’s equally complex trajectory. He was born near Dresden, a city leveled by Allied fire-bombs. His father was a secondary school teacher who was barred after the war from teaching because of his party membership which had been mandatory for all public employees. Gerhard took a degree from a trade school but pursed painting in evening courses and in 1951 entered the Dresden Art Academy. His work at this time reflected politics in the German Democratic Republic, public work in a realist, state-approved mode, and experimental art for himself. In 1961 with his wife Ema, he succeeded in emigrating to Western Germany; a few months later, the construction of the Berlin wall began.
Richter’s painting in the GDR had focused on large-scale murals, such as Workers Uprising for the headquarters of the Socialist Unity Party in Dresden. His 1963 collaboration with Polke on Capitalist Realism thus aggressively confronted his previous commissions. Like Polke, Richter’s oeuvre became wide ranging, encompassing realism, Pop, abstract gestural works, performance art, paintings, film, photographs, prints, sculpture and installations. Soon after moving to the West, Richter exploited his memories of the war and his own photographs. Uncle Rudi of 1965 depicts one of his mother’s two brothers, both killed in action. The smiling, uniformed, young man is painted with soft horizontal strokes in grey tones as if describing a moving object glimpsed too quickly. Like Polke, Richter questions the preciousness of the photograph, a central aspect of memory. The painting addresses the transient nature of light as it both captures the form for the camera, and transfers it to paper. The oil painting thus confuses expectation of media; what might seem mechanical is the result of individual, hand application.
Of a completely different concept, but one equally responding to context are Richter’s Color Charts begun the following year. The artist commented that these series of squares, to resurface as the window of the south transept of Cologne cathedral in 2007, had “to do with Pop Art. They were copies of paint sample cards . . . . . they were directed against the efforts of the Neo-Constructivists, Albers and the rest” (Benjamin Buchloh, ed. Gerhard Richter: Essays and Interviews, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2009, p. 169). The artist’s statement communicates how essential he conceived of color to respond to the space. The cathedral’s patrons had anticipated figural work and the six lancets of the window might have received images similar to Uncle Rudi, in grey scale, suggesting the ancient memory of saints, or their illustration in popular prints or devotional books. Architectural scale, apparently, demanded color.
Sigmar Polke also achieved international fame in stained glass, presented in the exhibition through video. The artist’s last installation was for the Grossmünster of Zürich, 2009. Dating to the twelfth-century, the Grossmünster was the seat of reformist Zwingli whose preaching led to the destruction of the building’s Catholic imagery. Imagery has returned. Seven windows in the west, are constructed of sliced agate stone leaded together, evoking the alabaster windows of Early Christian buildings such Gala Placidia in Ravenna. Five windows on the east are of traditional leaded and painted glass and depict Old Testament themes including Isaac, Elijah, David, and the Scapegoat, all inspired by medieval manuscripts. The forequarters of the Scapegoat stand precariously on cliff, while below, his hind parts face in the opposite direction. Textured elements suggesting fabric are reminiscent of Polke’s painting on printed textiles. The window of the Son of Man is stark, without color, an image associated with optical quizzes, representing alternatively the silhouette of chalices or two confronting faces. Polke questions, “What is the subject and what is the interstice?”
Indeed, what is the subject? Take at least several hours—actually take more, go away, and come back. This encapsulated journey through a remarkably productive and questioning life provides a matrix to reflect on contemporary culture and our own complicity.