PAINTINGS STILL WRAPPED in shipping materials and photographs strewn across the floor; a gate blocking access to key works; an exhibition design revolving around an outrageous invocation of the Holocaust: It is unlikely that such provocations could ever take place in a museum today. Yet each of these elements was sardonically deployed by Sigmar Polke in a midcareer survey, or antisurvey, of his work at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1976. Curated by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh but with an installation entirely designed by Polke, the Düsseldorf exhibition subjected the legendary artist’s own history and that of Germany to entropic unravelings and protean reconfigurations. Four years after Polke’s death and on the eve of the long-awaited, major monographic show “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” which opens April 19 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, art historian Christine Mehring reconsiders this little-known episode, illuminating some of the most confounding aspects of a prodigious, labile body of work that both invites and defies the retrospective impulse.

SOMETIME IN THE EARLY 1970S, art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh approached Sigmar Polke about curating the German artist’s first retrospective. He was firmly rebuffed. To the thirtysomething Polke, a retrospective was tantamount to a “gravestone,”1 not so much marking accomplishment as signaling the end of an artist’s prime. But Polke eventually agreed to present a Werkauswahl (selection of works) on the condition that he be involved in choosing the objects and be in charge of the hanging. Buchloh therefore did not think twice when the artist requested a carpenter to assist him with the final installation the night before the show’s April 9, 1976, opening at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. The next morning, an unsuspecting Buchloh entered the main exhibition space and found himself “stunned.”

During his night of work, Polke had evidently not spent much time worrying about the finer points of

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