At first thought, the vast array of art displayed in MoMA’s show “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” seems as if it could not possibly have been made by one person. Not only does the exhibition fill a full ten galleries, but the works within change form and artistic movement at a rapid pace. Polke’s work mutates frenetically from sculpture to collage to photography, approaching each with uniform conviction and mastery.
Polke’s art can be anything from his Lichtenstein-like “Girlfriends” painting (an enlarged, distorted newspaper ad) to “Uranium (Pink),” a collection of chromogenic color prints made by manipulating radiation on photographic chemicals. A row of small, roughly composed sketchbooks is displayed with equal prominence opposite full-size collages and paintings.
The most unique aspect of the show itself is its purposeful lack of wall labels. All necessary information is collected into a 32-page “Exhibition Guide.” The guide is complete with diagrams to help viewers identify and read about each piece. Although the guide can be cumbersome and confusing, the show benefits visually from the decision. Vast expanses of white stand uninterrupted by all but Polke’s art, allowing the eye to experience his works in relation only to one another. Some galleries choose to give each piece plentiful space to breathe; other rooms crowd together smaller works, creating a larger, meta-collage of Polke’s own collages. Both approaches allow for unique experiences of Polke’s art.
After wandering through ten rooms full of Polke’s disparate works, one has a unique feeling of coherence (despite the range in medium and subject). Polke’s hand can be felt in each of the works, from his four monolithic panels of glass and soot, to the experimental pieces of video art. He returns habitually to the same themes: the legacy of Germany in WWII (evidenced by the embedded swastikas in multiple works), and a preoccupation with pop culture – especially the influence of television. The sense of uniformity perhaps can be understood through a comparison to other contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami, and Ai Weiwei. Each of those artists has a sizeable studio at their command, which helps them manufacture their works. Diversity in medium and the ability to create large-scale works is gained, but the hand of the artist is lost. Sigmar Polke manages to walk this line with grace – creating works that move easily between genre and style, all while feeling distinctly “Polke.”
The most unifying theme is Polke’s own disunity. Polke’s refusal to be categorized into one art movement or medium fills each gallery with the tension of rebellion. Standing in the midst of Polke’s work, one feels solidarity with this refusal. Polke is a brilliant reminder that all boundaries we set can, and should, be crossed.
“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010″ is on at MoMA through August 3rd
Review by Chloe Foussianes