Sigmar Polke was a man who didn’t like to reveal his hand,” says Kathy Halbreich, associate director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who organized “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010.” Polke was an inveterate experimenter across media, according to Halbreich, yet he never agreed during his lifetime to do an exhibition covering all the mediums in which he worked. The MoMA show, which opens April 19, is the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the elusive German artist.
“By putting together drawings, collages, prints, photographs, sculpture, film—as well as painting—you begin to see what he probably didn’t really want you to see: that despite his being known as a contrarian with not one recognizable style, the idea of contamination was a governing principle,” Halbreich says. She worked with Polke on a smaller retrospective in 1995 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, when she was director there, and she believes that he willfully suppressed his market by eschewing a signature style, thereby maintaining his freedom and resisting circumscription by critics. “Sigmar grew up surrounded by a country that was still trying to find its conscience,” she continues, “that at its heart had the alibi, ‘I didn’t see anything.’”
Organized with Tate Modern in London (where it travels in October), “Alibis” is one of the largest shows in MoMA’s history, and it begins with Polke’s distinctly German version of Pop art. Born in 1941 in Oels, part of Eastern Germany that was taken back by Poland in 1945, Polke and his family fled to Thuringia, and then to Willich near Düsseldorf in 1953. “Sigmar’s family was destitute when he was a young man,” says Halbreich. “When he got to West Germany and saw shining cars in storefront windows, he didn’t think abundance was necessarily healthy.”
In 1961, Polke enrolled at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. There, he and fellow students Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg coined the term “Capitalist Realism” to describe their work—influenced by the American Pop art they saw in journals—which they conceived as a West German foil to the style of Socialist Realism in the East. In those early years, Polke made paintings isolating everyday items such as biscuits, socks, and a chocolate bar. One of the works in the show, The Sausage Eater (1963), displays a meandering trail of sausage links leading into a disembodied, gluttonous mouth.
“There’s nothing triumphant about any of these images,” says Halbreich, contrasting Polke’s intentionally modest esthetic with the glamorous images of Lichtenstein and Warhol, done just slightly earlier. “Sigmar both saw the radicality of American Pop and was very ambivalent about the way consumerism became the central function of everyday life,” she adds. “These are political pictures in the largest sense. If there was a politics of skepticism, Sigmar would have been the head of that government.”
Over his lifetime, Polke amassed an extraordinary library that covered topics including philosophy, science, global art history, meteorology, early German law, and the Kabbalah. He lifted freely from cartoons, advertisements, and newspapers as well as appropriating from artists such as Dürer and Goya. “He was a sponge for images and promiscuous in his use of what he found,” says Halbreich. That could include the title of a Buddhist text, “Seeing Things As They Are,” which he printed in German in reverse across two textiles treated with resin to make the fabric see-through in a 1991 painting of the same name. Or it could be a newspaper photo of Lee Harvey Oswald, which Polke cut out following John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. After vastly enlarging the image with a projector, exposing the individual halftone dots of the reproduction, the artist transferred each dot onto his paper by dipping the eraser of a pencil into paint.
“He’s contaminating the purity of the reproduction by turning it into a handmade, artisanal thing,” says Halbreich. “He was questioning the reality of every image he saw.” The Oswald drawing is included in the show, and is the first of Polke’s “raster dot” works, which he continued making throughout his career by layering matrices of dots over mottled backgrounds, shifting recognizable images toward illegibility. “When you look at the work —and I mean this metaphorically as well as literally—Polke was fluid,” Halbreich says. “Things are in flux.”
“Alibis” features 13 of Polke’s little-known films, largely done during his extensive travels through Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia in the 1970s and after. A film shot in Papua New Guinea in 1980–81 shows local people dancing with white tourists. “He’s participating, and yet the camera, like for Warhol, provides a distance from the scene,” says Halbreich, describing Polke as a “connoisseur of hallucinogens”—which, she believes, he used less recreationally than as part of an ongoing search. “His companion said they took this trip to escape their personal and national history.”
The retrospective also highlights Polke’s wild experiments with alchemy in the ’80s. In Uranium (Pink), 1992, ravishing color and light effects were produced by irradiating photosensitive plates and negatives with uranium, which left visible traces of the deadly radiation. In six other canvases serializing the image of a watchtower, Polke employed a diverse range of materials including silver bromide, a chemical used in the emulsion of photographs. With time and exposure to light, the watchtower has become almost impossible to make out.
“The mutability of the material itself reflects the mutability of the meaning of this object,” says Halbreich. “You can still see watchtowers in the German landscape. They are often used by hunters. But the watchtower also was positioned along the East-West border and guarded the concentration camps. By using light to contaminate the image, which goes from the mundane to the monstrous, he is suggesting the fluidity of memory, the function of repression, and the willful blindness of many in the German population during the Second World War.”
Halbreich, who turns 65 this month, has been monopolized for the last two years by this project, which she began in 2008. Although MoMA director Glenn Lowry didn’t hire her that year as a curator, it was part of their understanding that she would have the freedom to organize shows. After spending 16 years as head of the Walker and leading the institution through a major expansion that was completed in 2005, Halbreich had felt burned out by the demands of directorship. “Having raised a lot of money and built a building and grown a staff, I wanted to see if I could still look at art,” she says. She took a sabbatical—returning to New York, where she grew up—spent several weeks going to museum and gallery shows, and reengaged with looking and thinking deeply about art.
“I realized I wanted to perform in that way,” she recalls, “as opposed to the way I thought a director had to perform.” She resigned from the Walker without having a next step in mind. But the day her resignation was announced in the New York Times, Lowry was on the phone, and over the next several months, they worked together to figure out what role Halbreich could play at MoMA. “Glenn gave me the opportunity to really reinvent my life after being a director,” she says.
During the last six years, liberated from some of the administrative and fundraising duties that go along with being a director, Halbreich has focused on curatorial and strategic issues relating to contemporary programs. She leads the curatorial committee dedicated to contemporary art and oversees Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives in a Global Age (C-MAP), a research initiative designed to expand the Modern’s curatorial expertise through exchanges with scholars, artists, and cultural historians from around the world. Eastern Europe, Brazil, and Japan have been areas of particular attention so far. She has a personal passion for dance and theater and has strongly championed curators at MoMA who are focused on performance. (She elevated the profile of the Walker’s cutting-edge performing-arts program as well.) Halbreich has also ushered in a new generation of curators, six out of seven of whom were hired during her tenure. Besides acting as lead curator on the Polke retrospective, Halbreich co-organized a reinstallation of the contemporary galleries in 2010 with Christophe Cherix, chief curator of prints and drawings.
“I have no set palette of responsibilities, which is a great freedom,” Halbreich says. “I think I’m here to sometimes ask the dumb questions, to sometimes ask the pointed questions masquerading as dumb questions, and to sometimes ask the questions that just somebody at my ripe old age knows to ask.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 40 under the title “Connecting the Polke Dots.”