New York

Sigmar Polke

PERCHED NEAR THE EDGE of the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium throughout this past spring and summer, Sigmar Polke’s Kartoffelhaus (Potato House), 1967, echoed not only the diminutive German garden sheds and rigidly formed Minimalist objects in whose shadow the work was clearly made, but also—and more oddly—the very interior in which the piece itself was installed. For just like MoMA’s expansive exhibition-cum-dinner-party space, Polke’s construction—a five-sided, pitched-roofed wooden lattice held together by an elegant joinery of fresh potatoes—is an ode to right-angled precision and permeable volumetric enclosure, right down to its rhyming of the similarly scaled apertures (and picture grids visible through these) that surrounded it during the run of the museum’s recent retrospective “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010.” Beyond the petit bourgeois pleasures and the stolid culinary and built delicacies of postwar Germany, then, Potato House’s effective targets came to include the architectural programming—and seeming insatiability—of its New York host, epitomized nowhere so clearly as in the institution’s overscaled and much-maligned central hall.

None of this, of course, was (or could have been) anywhere in Polke’s thinking when he first made Potato House nearly five decades ago. But one primary effect of the artist’s astonishing MoMA retrospective—as full of complexly worked material experimentation and brilliantly formulated cultural observation as any show I’ve seen—was to create the sense that Polke ultimately sought to explore and touch on everything, from orbiting comets to subterranean root structures, neolithic hunter-gatherers to contemporary consumers and politicians. All of the above, needless to say, made appearances in the show. And to return to Potato House and MoMA’s atrium: Is it really such a stretch, confronted with the work’s homely and tongue-in-cheek folksiness, to view it as a time-traveling jab at the self-important spectacles and corporatist architectural planning that have increasingly swirled around its temporary home? Could anything be less MoMA than a lovingly constructed grid of soon-to-be-sprouting tubers?

What makes Polke’s practice so captivating, and what MoMA’s show astutely managed to capture, is precisely the manner in which his wildly diverse references and materials (forget potatoes—try meteoric granulate, Schweinfurt green, radioactive uranium, shag carpeting, and bubble wrap) coalesce to form a body of work that pulses, seemingly against all odds, with a singular critical inquisitiveness and intelligence. The artist’s early Pop works, divided in part between utterly prosaic renderings of socks, sausages, and plastic tubs and splotchily enlarged press images of Elke Sommer and Lee Harvey Oswald, thus chime in perfect tune with his ferociously overpainted textiles and variable chromatic experiments of the 1980s, just as with his beautifully raunchy sex drawings and manipulated photographs of hallucinogenic mushrooms from the ’70s. All push the material intensities of consumer, aesthetic, political, and sensual desire to their limits, and do so with both expansive urgency and cutting wit. And in each case, explicit figures of desire—be they mushrooms, starlets, or displays of domestic kitsch or ethereal color—are subsumed within and made inseparable from the material instantiation of Polke’s own incessant (and incessantly masterful) picture-making drive: his soaking, stitching, pouring, painting, filming, printing, cutting, and drawing, often in one and the same work.

Arranged roughly chronologically but following no categorical divisions of medium or concept, MoMA’s installation allowed the disparate resonances between Polke’s projects to emerge organically and cumulatively—as a kind of promiscuous contamination, to borrow from curator Kathy Halbreich’s excellent catalogue essay. (Halbreich’s decision to forgo wall labels in favor of a thirty-one-page informational handout was keen in this regard, forcing viewers to look freely and widely before seeking the security blanket of explanatory text.) The show’s cross-contamination began straightaway with its career-spanning selection of large-scale works and 16-mm films in the museum’s atrium, adjoined by an initial gallery that set a wall of Polke’s early-’60s paintings opposite a display of four decades of sketchbooks and printed publications. The droll Der Wurstesser (Sausage Eater), 1963, thus hung across from an ink swastika, drawn in 1982, whose seeping and transferred form marked three separate album pages, while Potato House was stared down by Papua New Guinea dancers (in the 1980–81 film Papua) from one wall and the iconically preppy Tennisspieler (Tennis Player), 1964, from another. For sheer size, all of these works were overwhelmed by Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida (The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda), 2002, Polke’s nearly twenty-two-foot-tall digital print on tarpaulin diagramming US drone warfare in Afghanistan, and the neighboring Season’s Hottest Trend, 2003, an elegant if ragged sixteen-foot-long abstraction in pink fake fur, transparent polyester, and deep-Prussian-blue fabric.

These works’ exploration of the dual seductions of state-sanctioned violence and lowly consumer pleasures is emblematic of Polke’s practice across the board. Born in Nazi Germany in 1941 and having spent his early childhood in the GDR before moving to Düsseldorf at age twelve, just as the West German Wirtschaftswunder was kicking into high gear, the artist was famously mistrustful of—and irreverent toward—established structures of political, spiritual, and aesthetic authority, above all those of his divided homeland. So the swastika appeared in the MoMA show as both bleeding liquid form and obliquely perceived abstract pattern; fragments from Albrecht Dürer were on display as both rubber-band constructions and luscious silver-oxide washes; and Chairman Mao—whose Little Red Book was a late-’60s German bestseller—made his appearance atop a mélange of tabloid headlines rendered on patterned fabric and hung, shower-curtain style, from a wooden dowel. Fascism, modernism, consumerism, Maoism: Polke probed them all, motivated not by the constraining demands of critique or judgment but rather by the seemingly inexhaustible drive to wrench open and create new forms from their tawdry material residue. As he commented in 1966: “It cannot be the task of the painter to investigate whether something is good or bad, and to judge. He points something out, he says it is like this and that, nothing more.” In Polke’s case, of course, this “nothing more” was quite something—beautiful and exhilarating in turn.

If this review keeps devolving into lists (here’s potatoes, and Mao, and kitschy fabric!), it’s because Polke’s practice operates through precisely such specifics: His output is so manically diverse, so precise in its means and references, that any claim reaching beyond the individual object is effectively sabotaged. (In this respect, his friend Gerhard Richter, about whom one can still effectively employ such general categorizations as “gray paintings” or “color charts,” seems downright straitlaced in comparison.) It’s no surprise, then, that Polke’s infinitely varied and consistently compelling doodles, of which several dozen were on hand in the retrospective, are among his most ingenious works. In their laconic touches of ballpoint pen, gouache, pencil, ink, and watercolor, we see his pitch-perfect wit and compositional acuity with unmatched intimacy. Likewise, Polke’s later experimentations with the mutable chemical properties of his materials—utilizing silver sulfate and bromide to create paintings that actively change over time, or developing photographic prints with the help of coffee and dishwashing liquid—betray a desire to stretch and escape the constraining boundaries of authorship and medium alike (a project long informed by his fascination with alchemy, hallucinogens, celestial powers, and diverse religious and mythological systems). To borrow from Malevich (himself a target of Polke’s efforts, most notably in Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke schwarz malen! [Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!], 1969), these works exist as “living, royal infants,” bound by nothing other than their own contingent and marvelous particularity.

It’s the mad insistence of Polke’s particulars, finally—his ability to create new thoughts and forms from the most shopworn materials and monolithic ideologies—that makes his work so consistently revelatory. And critical: There’s no cultural hierarchy not overturned by his efforts, no structure of authority that isn’t made utterly malleable. The massive scale of MoMA’s exhibition, containing more than 250 works and much heralded as one of the largest in the museum’s history, thus felt perfectly necessary. For how else could we get an accurate picture of the artist’s practice if we didn’t see six of his seven Watchtower paintings, 1984–88, or a dozen of his 16-mm films, or an entire wall of his glorious mid-’80s Farbproben (Color Experiments)? (Likewise, how could the show’s catalogue claim to document Polke’s range and influence if it didn’t feature contributions by such fellow artists as Paul Chan, Tacita Dean, and Jutta Koether in addition to its traditional art-historical fare?) The answer is, we couldn’t. And this selection put the fragile authority of no other system on display as it did that of the contemporary art world: from the countless unwitting epigones whose entire output is trumped by a single week of Polke’s foraging, to the very temple of MoMA itself, outshone by a simple latticework shed made of painted wood and potatoes.

“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” travels to Tate Modern, London, Oct. 9, 2014–Feb. 8, 2015.

Graham Bader is an associate professor of art history at Rice University in Houston.