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One of my – many – regrets is not seeing Sigmar Polke’s installation at the 1986 Venice Biennale, the theme of which was art and knowledge and included an exhibition on art and alchemy. Polke entitled his exhibition ‘Athanor’ after the slow furnace used in alchemy. The large curved wall opposite the entrance of the German pavilion was painted with cobalt chloride pigment, which reacted to humidity, changing from red, when it was humid, to blue when it was dry. A chunk of cinnabar and gold flakes were embedded in it. It was flanked by reflective honey-coloured ‘Synthetic-Resin Paintings’ (Kunstoffsiegel-Bilder) and there was a meteorite in front of it. Elsewhere there were light-sensitive, abstract and raster paintings.
It was almost as if Polke were celebrating ‘degenerate art’ in a pavilion where the curved wall had been installed by the Nazis in 1938 and where Arno Breker, a German sculptor favoured by the Nazis, had celebrated the National Socialist values of Audacity (Kühnheit) and Readiness (Bereitschaft).
For those who, like me, missed the Venice Biennale installation, the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York provides an opportunity to see the richness and diversity of perhaps the greatest painter of the late 20th century. Unusually for MoMA, the exhibition takes place entirely on the second floor. Instead of labels there is an exhibition guide with numbered diagrams of the walls. With 265 objects, it is one of the largest shows ever seen at MoMA. It was organized by Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall at MoMA and Mark Godfrey of Tate Modern. Though chronological in structure it begins with a cross-career sampling in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium.
Polke was born in 1945 in Oels, in the Silesian area of Eastern Germany, now Poland. At the end of the Second World War Polke’s family fled to Thuringia and then in 1953 escaped from East Germany to Düsseldorf, where, after an apprenticeship at a stained-glass factory (the last works in this show are the posthumously installed windows for the Grossmünster church in Zurich, 2006–9) he enrolled at the Kunstakademie. There, his fellow students were Gerhard Richter (b.1932), the abstract painter Blinky Palermo (1943–77) and Konrad Lueg (b. Konrad Fischer, 1939–96).
In 1963 Polke, along with Gerhard Richter, Wolf Vostell and Konrad Lueg, founded Capitalist Realism, a sort of manila version of Pop art. In Gallery One, which has an overview of Polke’s work 1963–2004 is Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) (1963). Instead of Warhol’s mechanical process or the regular Benday dots of Lichtenstein, Polke dipped the tip of a pencil rubber/eraser into poster paint and stamped it on the paper – a very handmade replica of the halftone image. Also from 1963 is The Sausage Eater, dispersion paint on canvas. This is in far contrast to Lichtenstein’s Hot Dog (1963): thin brown links of Polke’s sausages are being ingested by a small brown head in profile – it is as if the sausages are entrails.
Polke’s late 1960s work queries the objectivity and value of science. In 1969, when asked to contribute to one of the first Conceptual art exhibitions in Germany, ‘Konzeption-Conception’, he collaborated with Christof Kohlhöfer on a film, The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly…, parodying the serious thrust of Conceptual art. Along with other performances, Polke poses as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. In Cardboardology (1968-9), Polke invokes a fake science, a family tree of a cardboard box or graph paper, reminiscent of the false science behind Nazi eugenics.
Gallery Four 1963–1970 shows Polke’s ambiguous relationship with abstraction, which had been banned in the Third Reich: ironically Polke’s Constructivist (1968) impersonates a swastika. Elsewhere he plays with the kitsch and the decorative: Heron Painting II (1968), dispersion paint on patterned flannel, is reminiscent of the grid of abstraction. Negro Sculpture (1968) has a Bambi-patterned wallpaper with Leukoplast medical tape in two descending stepped lines. Untitled (Dr Bonn) (1978), with its patterned wool and casein-painted cone of light on a male figure in his study, is Polke’s response to the deaths of Red Army Faction members in prison in 1977. In a series of small, abstract ‘Colour Experiments’ (1982–6), Polke uses a wide range of painting materials – azurite, the toxic Schweinfurt green, acrylic, varnish, Damar resin, silver leaf, dispersion paint, enamel, gloss paint, fluorescent paint and red lead.
The title of this retrospective,‘Alibis’, invites interpretation. At one level it may refer to the way the majority of the German people turned their backs on what was done in their name under the Nazis. At another level it references the protean character of Polke’s imagery, inspiration, methods and materials. But there is also an examination of the idea of ‘artistic genius’. Dürer Hare(1970) recreates Dürer’s hare and monogram with elastic bands and nails on a pale blue fabric over particle board. Dürer, the archetypal Teutonic genius, is being played with by Polke, who is questioning the very notion of genius. Polke would never have considered himself a genius. But perhaps he was the ultimate ‘degenerate artist’.
The exhibition is accompanied by a well-produced colour catalogue, which has a complete illustrated checklist of the exhibition. It has texts by some artists, including Tacita Dean writing on ‘Polke and Higher Beings’, and Paul Chan on the Grossmünster stained-glass windows. Sadly, the bibliography does not cover works before 1997. But it is no substitute for seeing this marvellous show, as art lovers in London and Cologne will find out over the year ahead.
The catalogue Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, edited by Kathy Halbreich is published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014. 319 pp., fully illustrated in colour. ISBN 978 0 87070 889 3, $75.00, £45.30