Installation view of "Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010," The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

There are precious few artists whose work critics truly fear. And it's not always the ones you might expect.  Categories fail to do justice to the agile nature with which the German artist Sigmar Polke moved through his career. From the first capitalist realist exhibition in 1963 to the lenticular archival drawings of the past decade, Polke flirted with charged iconography, courted amnesia, and remained suspicious of good taste.

For the variability of his source material, the diversity of his formal strategies, and the multiplicity of meanings that implicate fraught histories, Polke has garnered much scholarly and institutional attention. The latest show to take on his work is “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” in which the Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern have co-organized the first retrospective to include all of his mediums. The genius of this exhibition is that you risk leaving confused about Polke’s messages. Is he remembering or forgetting? Warning or celebrating? Representing or obscuring? Then somewhere amidst Polke’s impressive dexterity you see the objects unfolding before you as artistic realizations of the vexing problems of late twentieth-century art.

If these questions now have a detached, academic air, they were perhaps more urgent in postwar Germany.  Depending on how you look at it, German artists of Polke’s generation were either doomed to historical impotence or blessed with a tortuous legacy that fed an ever-evolving cycle of veiled meanings. Luckily, Polke departed from many of his contemporaries by exploiting the latter.

Born in 1941, Polke originally apprenticed with a glass painter and travelled extensively, though he was active primarily in the Federal Republic of Germany, where he wasted few opportunities to situate his work clearly within his geo-political surroundings. While the exhibition shows such links to be inextricable, MOMA and the Tate Modern’s extensive catalogue points out that he often rejected readings of his work as a mere reflection of recent history or contemporary politics. The exhibition’s roughly chronological orientation provides ample space for this tension to play out. As nearly every work on view attests, postwar Germany goaded him out of conformity.


Sigmar Polke, The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, 21′ 4 5⁄16″ x 16′ 1 1⁄8″ (651 x 490.5 cm), Private Collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The exhibition opens in the Museum's second floor atrium. The glorious diversity of Polke's work is all here, neatly (as possible) packed into a whiplash tour of some of his largest works. The atrium contains a recent lenticular piece, Seeing Rays (Strahlen Sehen) (2007); a tarpaulin work depicting an Al-Qaeda-hunting unmanned drone The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida) (2002); and several examples of his signature raster technique—an often manually executed variation of the Ben-Day dots that transfixed American Pop art. This process is typified by one of the show’s highlights: Girlfriends (Freundinnen) (1965/1966), for which Polke copied a tabloid-like image of two swimwear-clad women by purposefully disrupting the offset printing process used in newsprint.

The works in the atrium are big, bold, and risky. Polke had a knack—a predilection, even—for making statements at inopportune times. For example, one is likely to be struck by just how prescient The Hunt for the Taliban looks today. In 2002, Polke was among the earliest to have tapped the aesthetic capacity of the unmanned drone, that emblematic object of post-9/11 counterterrorism.


Installation view of "Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010," The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

But we should expect nothing less. The Federal Republic of Germany’s politics, bureaucracy, policing of terror groups, and Cold War divisions of the most literal kind are present throughout the show. Nearby in the atrium is Police Pig (Polizeischwein) (1986), a raster painting depicting a real German drug-sniffing police pig, but, of course, the title also references the double entendre often aimed at authority. This and other political works are never within precise reach, though, as Polke is a virtuoso at contrasting these with formal elements that make their surface iconography ever more idiosyncratic. Polke made Untitled (Dr. Bonn) (1978) at the height of the bloody events known as Deutscher Herbst, in which imprisoned members of the left-wing terrorist group known as the Baader–Meinhof Gang inspired a spate of kidnappings and assassinations. A cartoonish scene of statecraft and dissent executed on a grid-patterned fabric support, the work depicts a faceless bureaucrat seated below the gang leaders’ wanted posters and pointing a slingshot at his own head. (Bonn was also the name of West Germany’s then de facto capital). This use of the rather loud fabric is essential to Polke’s work in general. Not only in the materiality and politics of its employment, but also for its ability to tie together subjects across radically abrupt shifts in visual strategy.

Season’s Hottest Trend (2003) also hangs in the atrium. It’s a later example of Polke’s Stoffbilders, the fabric works that he and Blinky Palermo became known for in the 1960s. The work is significant in its striking use of three different material bands: a transparent bottom, fake pink “fur,” and a blue monochrome section. This massive work stands as symbol of, among other things, Polke’s longtime willingness to make use of commercial materials, at first out of art student necessity, and then as improvisations that evoke his relationship to modernism and German ideologies. 


Sigmar Polke, Modern Art (Moderne Kunst), 1968; Acrylic and lacquer on canvas, 59 1/16 x 49 3/16″ (150 x 125 cm), Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

We see here again that Polke had an irreverent attitude toward the generic abstraction on the 1960s. This is foregrounded by the recent history of Germany’s official opposition to Entartete Kunst as well as the political uses of modernist style as a symbol of the capitalist West’s freedom. This was best summarized by works like Moderne Kunst (1968) and Constructivist (Konstruktivistisch) (1968), in which Polke overtly quotes modernist elements in prototypical compositions. For Polke abstraction was, in this sense, a cliché worthy of parody, but also a tool that points to the difficulties presented by any such direct worship of modernist forbearers.

Everywhere he worked he exposed danger. In Cardboardology (Pappologie) (1968–69), he traces the fictional lineage of cardboard from box to box, pace eugenics. In later photographs entitled Uranium (Pink) (Urangestein [Rosa]) (1992) he captured the effects of the radioactive element Uranium on photographic paper, this right in the wake of major protests of nuclear power in Europe in the 1980s.


Installation view of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

Polke worked on fertile ground for a provocateur. From disturbing appropriation of Nazi symbols (reminders of nationalism as much as they were purposely incendiary gestures) to his routine mockery of rational scientific thought, to outright references to the barbed wire of labor camps, the current show at MOMA further mystifies Polke, drawing his wide-ranging output deeper in line with reactions to modernity’s great shortcomings. Whether it be destructive ideologies, overdependence on technology, or even the abuses of history itself, Polke’s ability to move across not just media but also aesthetic positions is on rapt display. 

“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on April 19 and remains on view through August 3, 2014.