In 1976 I found myself in Düsseldorf, one stop on a mission to gather material for a special "European" issue of Art-Rite magazine (which we never managed to put out). One memorable highlight was a Sigmar Polke exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. The entryway was blocked off by wood fencing, probably bought at a garden supply store, but visitors could view the gallery space by looking down from the mezzanine. Instead of hanging the pictures on the walls, Polke had scattered his paintings and photographs haphazardly around the space, many face down, in the shape of a giant swastika. Lettering across the fence read, “Art makes you free,” a bitter parody of the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which crowned the gate at Auschwitz.
Polke, who died too early at 69 in 2010, wasn't just a bad boy. He was a bad ass.
By the 1970s, the German art scene was well into a postwar cultural Renaissance, presided over by the soulful magus Joseph Beuys, who had made his first visit to the United States in ’74, when he lived with a coyote for two weeks in a gallery on West Broadway. To a couple of naïve visitors from New York, the Düsseldorf scene—artists lived in that city while the galleries were in Cologne, with the two being almost as proximate as SoHo and Madison Avenue—was a mashup of Haight-Asbury and the Living Theater, filled with colorful characters and exciting art. It seemed like an adventure in communes, counterculture politics, and psychedelia.
We met the young Amazonian artist Katharina Sieverding, who made gender-bending self-portrait photographs that melded her image with that of her partner Klaus Mettig. Blinky Palermo, who took his alias from a Philadelphia gangster and boxing fixer we’d never heard of, made elegant geometric abstractions via a louche technique of sewing together swaths of colored fabric—but he was off in Ceylon. We did have a studio visit with Gerhard Richter, the scene’s classicist, who made both abstract and figurative works, a rare combination in those days. What he thought of his clueless American visitors is thankfully lost to time.
Richter and Polke, together with Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg, who later became the celebrated art dealer Konrad Fischer, were the principals of what came to be called Capitalist Realism, a German manifestation of Pop Art that ironically celebrated the “economic miracle” of the country's booming postwar recovery.
Polke we never met—he was famously reclusive—but we did stumble into an exhibition by one of his collaborators, Christof Kohlhöfer, an immensely talented painter, photographer, and filmmaker. With the intercession of the dealer Ingrid Oppenheim, we invited ourselves to be his houseguests, and later returned the favor in New York, when Kohlhofer emigrated to the city with his then-girlfriend, Ulli Rimkus, who went on to open the East Village bar Max Fish.
Fast-forward 38 years, and we have “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010" at the Museum of Modern Art, a 250-work behemoth that is one of the largest shows the museum has ever mounted. Organized by MoMA associate director Kathy Halbreich and MoMA curatorial assistant Lanka Tattersall with Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey, the show is scheduled to travel to the Tate in London and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. The impressive 324-page catalogue features almost 20 texts, including a 1976 interview with the artist by Benjamin Buchloh, and essays titled “Bad Dad” by Jutta Koether and “Higher Beings Send Peas” by Tacita Dean.
An alibi is an exoneration, according to Webster’s—a proof of innocence. Alibis are solid, watertight, cast-iron, and perfect. Then again, they are manufactured, convenient, suspect, and false. The notion has considerable resonance in Germany, considering its history, where the question of what you (or your parents) were doing during the war is rarely a happy one. Add to that another 30 years of repression in the GDR—Polke, like Richter, came from East Germany—and it’s easy to understand why a consciousness of the darkness below the surface of modern life might be an abiding feature of Polke’s work. For him and other artists of his generation, the swastika lived on as a sign of the absurdity of any excuse, and the impossibility of any penance.
In this regard, Polke’s first defense, I would say, was his irreverence. Everything is a joke, often gnomic, frequently barbed, and political. While filled with mockery, his work is also marked by pathos. Many of his early paintings are rudimentary copies of advertisements. The Sausage Eater (1963), a primitive painting of a hand and face consuming an almost endless string of sausages, implies that happiness in contemporary Germany consists of all the crap you can eat, and then some. Other paintings knock art off its high horse, like Plastic Tubs (1964), for which Polke took as his subject what looks like a variety-store sales flyer for a line of cheap containers—possibly a wry citation of Degas and his scenes of nudes at the bath, according to Tattersall’s catalogue essay.
Polke’s signature motif is the “raster,” his own stenciled and hand-painted version of Roy Lichtenstein’s enlarged Ben-Day dot—the Polke-dot. Hypertrophied, the misaligned grids of these dots could confuse representations of reality or, as Donald Kuspit suggested, punch holes in the images of social normalcy, undermining their authority. In the ‘70s he began to use brightly patterned modern fabrics to paint on because, he claimed, he was too lazy to come up with all the imagery himself, as if he couldn’t be bothered to tempt the viewer with any kind of technical facility. What Halbreich calls Polke’s “infallibly charmless hand” is one of the things that sets his work apart from almost all other Pop art, German, or American (though his anti-art approach was quickly picked up by later generations of artists, from Martin Kippenberger to Bjarne Melgaard).
Even when Polke’s paintings are more traditionally attractive, their quality comes from mess and cacophony. He was one of the first aesthetic sadists: why make it sweet when it can hurt? Today the paintings look... energized. The explosively colorful Supermarkets (1976) measures almost 7x10 feet, and presents a hallucinatory vision of a supermarket aisle filled, naturally, with shopping superheroes. Like his primary artistic predecessor, Max Ernst, Polke had a polymorph’s appetite for images and ideas, and he accumulated huge library of sources, both historical and contemporary. “He stole everything,” Kohlhöfer said of his friend, and this appetite transformed his art-making into what appears as an index of an untrammeled imagination.
In the 1980s, Polke expanded his artistic cosmos even further, to focus on painting as a kind of alchemy. With their sumptuous washes of resins, pigments, chemicals, and metals, Polke’s alchemical paintings resemble the seductive paint surfaces of Abstract Expressionism or the Color Field school. One can’t help but feel that Polke was driven by his social and political distress into a world of elemental magic. His series of huge “watchtower” paintings from the 1980s, which place a stenciled image of a concentration-camp-style observatory against an inchoate painted background, make the connection between a metaphysical quest in the face of state tyranny all the more pointed.
One of the first paintings in the show is Polke’s 1969 parody of artistic inspiration, Higher Being Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! On one level, the picture is a funny joke about abstract spirituality and artistic pretension. Like all jokes, however, the work has a painful and serious underpinning. Polke adopted the phrase “higher being” from a Heinrich Böll story about a secretly unrepentant Nazi, in which the higher being might mean God or Hitler. This is the dynamic that gives Polke’s works their cutting combination of hysteria and hope.
Walter Robinson is an artist and art critic who was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). His work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison, Dorian Grey, and other galleries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read his previous See Here column on Artspace.