There was something undeniably timely in the Museum of Modern Art’s mammoth retrospective ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,’ as Polke remains a paragon of the formal dexterity and shielded ironic remove that informs so much of today’s painting. Indeed, if attitudes become memes, then Polke’s brand of dark, searing irony has reached viral proportions, advancing carnivalesque process-oriented play as an elevated, if at times overestimated, pursuit. Until his death in 2010, Polke was a masterful pioneer of tongue-in-cheek stratagems, colliding disparate painterly languages and incongruous materials while seducing and spoofing our aesthetic convictions.
Of course, such collisions and subversions are the daily bread of another vocation: comedy. And in this light, it is useful to think of Polke – like Martin Kippenberger but unlike his more romantic postwar contemporaries Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer – as a committed stand-up, torn between brooding political commentary and the temptations of crafting a good gag. Not all of Polke’s gags work, however, and it was a symptom of overenthusiasm on the part of curators Mark Godfrey, Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall that this sometimes claustrophobic show made so much of his material available for our scrutiny.
Indeed ‘Alibis’ was nothing if not ambitious, showing 265 works including drawings, paintings, sculpture, film, video, collage, prints, photography and sound pieces. Of this vast store, Polke’s films occupy the most ambiguous place, revealing the artist as equal parts prankster, obsessive documentarian and ethnographer. However, it was something of a struggle to absorb ‘Alibis’ avalanche of stimuli. With no wall labels and only an accompanying newsprint guide, an art-fair stupor – call it the Tumblr effect – slowly set in. Still, many of the works offered encounters with something mercurial, generous and, like the best jokes, beyond easy resolution.
Among these, Der Wurstesser (The Sausage Eater, 1963) imports American pop art, abstraction and deadpan advertisement, all in one, while the psychedelically informed Mao (1972) features a hypnotic tangle of forms on a red, mandala-like cloth. More enigmatic and tempestuous, Paganini (1981–83) is revelatory in its orchestrated incongruities. In this dynamic tableau, abstract and representational elements duel vertiginously as skulls and swastikas multiply across the canvas. A silhouette of the devil playing a violin – perhaps a stand in for Polke himself – flanks this painterly vortex as if overseeing some aesthetic super-collider. Equally memorable, Frau Herbst und ihre zwei Töchter (Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991) presents seductive paint and resin pours offset by an image culled from 19th-century French engravings. Confronted by this massive canvas, one toggles between the sheer material presence of the paint, its snowy puckers and topography, and the superimposed image rendered painstakingly on top as a competing representational model – a collapse of material and copy, mass and line.
Throughout, ‘Alibis’ takes pains to showcase Polke’s experimental spirit, displaying him alternately as manic tinkerer and alchemist. For instance, a group of abstractions on glass employs soot from an ancient oil lamp, while his Farbproben (Colour Samples, 1978–86), stage prescient experiments with paint and exotic materials foreshadowing today’s many younger, process-driven approaches. If genealogies are drawn here, then Polke appears as an equally prophetic and plundered figure. In many works, exposed stretcher bars – now a tiresome trend – erode the picture plane, while banal fabrics devalue and decorate, lampoon and mesmerize all at once. In Polke’s famous ‘Watchtower’ paintings (1984–88), German guard posts emerge spectrally from tawdry cloth, and the collision of kitsch and reference to historical trauma casts an ominous spell. Other works venture more random juxtapositions, attempting to produce an aesthetic spark by Frankenstein-ing incongruous parts, techniques or amplifying cacophony. If every comedian is part sober observer, part scientist testing effects, then Polke was all of these, pursuing chance operations and trying out new material – azurite, silver, uranium, meteorite dust – while boiling certain experiments down to formula. However, in humour as in painting, it is a kind of remainder that elevates something above mere virtuosity. This remainder is what is left after the conventional machinery of a work is explored, exploded and exhausted. With Polke, this remainder lies in the subtlety of surface, in the material and affective investment of works like Hochsitz II (Watchtower II 1984–85), painted with photo-sensitive silver salts and, like memory, slowly disappearing; or more humbly in one of his last pieces, Untitled (2009–10), consisting of a simple notebook, each page of which he poignantly painted black. In these works the consummate ironist dispels all irony. Some untarnished faith, so irreverently disavowed at every corner, returns, and we are scorched by the artist’s fidelity. Such is the latent thread of ‘Alibis’, which ends in a slideshow of Polke’s last major work, the ravishing agate and stained glass windows for the Grossmünster in Zürich. The heretic-mystic who spent his life evading closure comes full circle to the craft he learned as a youth. But even these subtler moments are ultimately too fragile, overwhelmed by the show’s congested staging and Polke’s own manic production, and for these reasons, too few. Leaving ‘Alibis’, I overheard a visitor express this sentiment more succinctly, like a good joke with multiple meanings. ‘There’s too much to see here,’ he said to his companion, ‘or not to see.’