In 1967, Sigmar Polke crafted a rustic structure called Potato House (Kartoffelhaus). The piece is a lean-to made of wood-lath grids that are reinforced by hundreds of lumpy, matte-brown potatoes. Riffing on the precision favored by the Minimalists, Polke’s use of potatoes adds a brash roughness and clumsiness to the otherwise sleek construction.
Potatoes, which were a dietary staple in postwar Germany, made their way into several of Polke’s mixed-media artworks. Three of these pieces are included in “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” a retrospective of Polke’s work that is on view now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition will run through August 3, yet these edible tubers have an estimated shelf life of just one month.
When I walked through the show last week, I wondered what the plan for these perishable potatoes is. Over time, would they shrivel? Would they rot? Or worse, would they smell? My curiosity piqued, I contacted MoMA curatorial assistant Magnus Schaefer to find out just how the museum’s staff plans to keep Polke’s potatoes looking fresh for the duration of the show.
Under the guidance of the exhibition’s curator, MoMA assistant director Kathy Halbreich, Schaefer and his fellow curatorial assistant Lanka Tattersall are responsible for overseeing the potatoes. When Potato House traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008, curators there conducted an experiment to determine how long it would take for an impaled spud to begin sprouting. LACMA staff estimated that it would take four to six weeks to sprout, and the MoMA team is operating under this same assumption.
Schaefer and Tattersall will check on the tubers daily, keeping an eye out for damage or decay. “The potatoes are allowed to sprout,” he says, but “if they’re beginning to rot, we have to replace them.” Substitute potatoes don’t need to be cleaned or treated with any special chemicals. And the only criterion for replacements, Schaefer explains, is that the new potatoes look like the originals.
This casual approach to potato maintenance is in keeping with the spirit of Polke’s potato-based artworks, which are irreverent, experimental, and jocular. For another work in this show, Polke’s pseudoscientific Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another (Apparat, mit dem eine Kartoffel eine andere umkreisen kann), 1969, the artist affixed a motor to the seat of a wooden barstool and connected a wire to the motor. He crudely attached a potato to the wire, allowing it to revolve in a circular motion when the motor is switched on. A second potato is placed on the ground so that the hanging potato can orbit around it, like a middle school science fair solar-system model. A descendant of Duchamp’s 1913 Bicycle Wheel and Joseph Beuys’s Table with Accumulator (1958–85) Polke’s rudimentary mechanism was a cheeky jab at the cult of Duchamp’s readymades and an expression of his own curiosities about space travel.
As Polke’s friend the psychologist and publisher Friedrich Wolfram Heubach wrote of the German artist in a 1976 essay, “If there is anything that embodies every aspect of the artist that has ever come under discussion—love of innovation, creativity, spontaneity, productivity, creation complete from within oneself, etc.—it is the potato.”