Wildly Inventive Sigmar Polke

Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963–2010

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, April 19–August 3, 2014; Tate Modern, London, October 1, 2014–February 8, 2015; and Museum Ludwig, Cologne, March 14–July 5, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Kathy Halbreich with Mark Godfrey, Lanka Tattersall, and Magnus Schaefer
Museum of Modern Art, 319 pp., $75.00
Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild‑Kunst, Bonn
Sigmar Polke: Watchtower, 118 x 88 1/2 inches, 1984

I remember quite well the first time I saw the paintings of Sigmar Polke. It was in 1982, a time when a new generation of American artists, and a generation concerned with painting—which had not been the case with young artists for years—was coming to the fore. The few paintings by Polke on view at the Holly Solomon Gallery, then in SoHo, had a freakish power. Here was an only vaguely known, or for many of us a previously unheard of, German artist who, in works dating from 1972, had brought off with great confidence something similar to what one was seeing, and being excited by, in the new American paintings by, among others, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Carroll Dunham, and Terry Winters.

The Polkes were, in the simplest terms, crosses between tapestries and Cubist collages (and could be six feet or more on a side). Those initial works and others one eventually saw each presented a kind of floating world. It was a terrain where snippets of faces or figures taken from an ad, a cartoon, or a news photo, or that might be recognizable on their own—Alice, say, from Alice in Wonderland, or a figure from Goya, or Hopalong Cassidy—were magically interwoven with, or painted over, patches of fabric or abstract markings. There might also be splashy pours of paint, stenciled areas, or clusters of dots.

The paintings didn’t exactly have a larger literary or political story to tell. Yet Polke had a pleasingly uninsistent feeling for worn and lowly items—whether inexpensive, commercially printed fabrics or cheesy images from newspaper cartoons showing tubby office manager nobodies storming off in different directions—and this feeling for the everyday lent an unobtrusive human warmth to his work. He assembled his stenciled areas, quotes from ads, and stitched-in zones of fabric with seeming speed and a natural’s sense of how colors play off each other. His nonchalance was marvelous in itself.

In time, one learned that there was much more to Polke than what might be called those tapestry pictures. He began to exhibit in New York, and in 1991 a large retrospective, begun the previous year in San Francisco, came to the Brooklyn Museum. In 1999 the Museum of Modern Art mounted a significant exhibition of drawings done between 1963 and 1974. Noteworthy shows devoted to other aspects of his work were held in Dallas and Chicago (as well as throughout Europe, of course), and by the time he died, in 2010, at sixty-nine, it was clear that Polke was a phenomenon. His ever-changing body of work included a period in the 1960s when he was a kind of Pop artist and a period beginning in the 1980s when his pictures were abstract and, Merlin-like, his concern was the creation…

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