Russell Bowman, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, begins his introductory essay on the genesis of this show with the question “Why these three artists?” But the fact of such an exhibition—which is, among other things, the first U.S. museum retrospective for Andy Warhol since his death, and the first-ever Sigmar Polke retrospective in this country—begs the question “Why here?”

In describing the various connections among these artists Bowman notes that they began their public careers at approximately the same time (1960) and rose to prominence in three successive decades: Warhol in the ’60s, Joseph Beuys in the ’70s, and Polke in the ’80s. He declares that “their art can be said to be almost synonymous with the basic artistic attitudes of those decades.” All three artists were still alive when Bowman began organizing this show in 1985; the death of two of them since then has given the exhibition special poignancy. The installation is generally quite good—the work of each artist is displayed in its own set of galleries, to be passed through in the same sequence as the show’s title—even as it occasionally maneuvers the separate bodies of work into dubious alignment in order to highlight similarities in subject matter and methods.

Bowman makes his most compelling case for a reassessment of Warhol as a social critic by including several works that have especially potent cultural resonances: 16 Jackies, 1964, with its alternately smiling and weeping First Lady; a poker-faced Mao, 1973; Still Life, 1976, which depicts an actual hammer and sickle; and Stadium, 1982, with its image of searchlight beams encircling a Nazi rally at Nuremberg. The two-panel Mustard Race Riot, 1964, its left side filled with silkscreened scenes of police dogs attacking civil-rights marchers, its right side an empty mustard-yellow field, is a prelude to Minimalism. This canny selection of works focuses on Warhol’s unique skill at composing reiterations of images that subvert our idea of what they appear to represent.

Beuys’ artistic influence was, in large part, an outgrowth of the installations and performances epitomizing his ideas of self- and social transformation. Much of Beuys’ graphic work served a dual function as documentation and evocation of his personal cosmology. Far from the sites of the artist’s best-known actions, this first Midwest museum showing of his work presents a diminished, hermetic Beuys, exaggerating the mythopoetic aspects of his art at some expense to his energies as a sociopolitical organizer. Two installations have been recreated for the exhibit: Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten (From Berlin: news from the coyote; 1979), and F.I.U. Difesa della Natura (Free international university in defense of nature, 1983–85). Placed within sight of each other, they lose something of their ideological coherence, becoming relentlessly eclectic inventories of materials.

Polke’s eclecticism is another matter, stemming not from a lack of stylistic consistency as much as from a disdain for it. The 23 pictures seen here range from Pop-influenced paintings of the ’60s, through some weirdly cryptic works on commercially printed fabric which occupied Polke throughout the ’70s, to the chillingly cold watchtowers, prison bars, and calligraphic exercises that are among his current interests. Polke was one of Beuys’ students for several years in the ’60s, and something like the mystifying strangeness that characterized his mentor’s public persona shows up in Polke’s very odd choices of subject matter and materials. In The Copyist, 1982, splashes of soupy lacquer coat a neoclassical landscape scene, complete with church spires and distant clouds, before which a robed figure scrawls away at an open book. The lacquer both “preserves” this image and contradicts its references to a coherent historical style. In Audacia, 1986, the scintillating blue-gray haze behind a peculiarly lame doodle seems to have been painted in a medium of ice. The fact of Polke’s eclecticism is evidence of his singularity of presence. His work is a refutation of our faith in conventions of meaning and feeling.

This is an undeniably impressive show, but one that doesn’t convincingly create authentic connections among its subjects, connections that feel inevitable, born of previously unrecognized necessities of relationship. There are many coincidences tying these artists together, but their arts are overridingly particular. Still, the show is an audacious triumph of curating. (It was organized in collaboration with the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, where it is now on view.) To have gotten three of the most important artists of the postwar era to agree to participate in a joint exhibition at a considerable distance from art-world centers like New York or Cologne is a real coup. Why here? Perhaps they wanted their work seen in a different light.

Reviewed by Buzz Spector.