Critics’ Picks

Sigmar Polke, Tree of Life, 1983, acrylic on fabric, 71 x 59".

Sigmar Polke, Tree of Life, 1983, acrylic on fabric, 71 x 59".

New York

Sigmar Polke

Nahmad Contemporary
980 Madison Avenue 3rd Floor
November 4, 2014–January 15, 2015

Kathy Halbreich’s world-shaking MoMA retrospective of the slipperiest artist of the postwar era contained no less than 265 works. They’re all in London right now, and yet somehow there are still enough Polkes around to fill three simultaneous New York gallery shows: a photography showcase at Paul Kasmin, photocopier works at Fergus McCaffrey, and this nine-painting exhibition focusing on the artist’s use of fabric. In the 1980s, Polke delighted in ugly wallpaper (think of the floral-print Seeing Things As They Are, 1991, the anchor for Halbreich’s show), and several paintings here feature bisected grounds of patterned wallpaper overlaid with expressionistic daubs, or else cartoonish, pseudo-anthropological markings. Later works, with printed images recalling both his early raster dot paintings and his concurrent photocopier experiments, play with art-historical precedents. An untitled 1993 painting has the bottle and wine glasses of a modernist still life; a 2002 artwork intermingles a coral circle-patterned quilt with what appears to be a rejigged rococo tapestry.

In a 1977 text, Polke likened the experience of art to “not being able to defend yourself . . . or the desperate effort not to want to.” That is the effect of a painting such as The Raven, 1996: It includes a ground of both plaid and nautical-themed fabrics and a Gothic sketch of man and bird that is partially painted over in an uncontrolled skim of white oil paint. The work calls into question his sincerity and intelligibility—and our own desire for the same. Nevertheless, these smaller Polke shows have the (perhaps unavoidable) tendency to make Polke easily defensible. The genius of Halbreich’s MoMA retrospective was that, for all its rigor, it insisted that Polke was in fact uncontainable. This show and the other two on view in New York now have their reasons to pin Polke down, but I suspect he’ll slip away again.