Untitled work by Sigmar Polke
Untitled work by Sigmar Polke (1974-78)

The incoherent career of Sigmar Polke makes a perverse sort of sense. He was a trickster, a fool, an artist who jittered and skipped rather than evolve in any orderly progression. The task of straightening that rambling path into a comprehensible narrative has fallen to Museum of Modern Art curator and associate director Kathy Halbreich. But Polke gets the last giggle. He died in 2010 while she was planning a definitive retrospective, and left her with a glut of glittering shards.

His creative synapses fired in many directions at once. He sampled an assortment of drugs and media with an anarchic sense of adventure. His politics were as wild as his personality: down with rules, out with ideology, nix to right thinking and codes of behaviour. MoMA simply can’t cope with so much orneriness. The show is a labyrinth of excess, a den of exuberant negativity, and going through it is more frustrating than exciting.

Polke, famous for being cutting and harsh, seems to have cowed Halbreich even from the grave. The museum provides no signposts – no labels to identify work by date, title or medium. This crucial information lurks in an indecipherable brochure. It’s as if he is posthumously daring viewers to ask how a piece was done, or when or what it’s about.

A furry amoeboid creature, crudely drawn in ballpoint on a crumpled sheet of paper, gets to express its discontent. One speech bubble demands “less work”, another “more pay!” This spare doodle distils a stylistic brutishness so refined that only a supremely gifted draughtsman could have pulled it off. A few galleries away hangs its polar opposite: a mind-bending mess of a mural, engorged with psychedelic disorder. In “The Right on the Eight of Infinity (The Motorcycle Headlight)”, a glowing self-portrait bursts in baroque swirls, filling the entire space like a drug-addled vision of the cosmos.

What connects these two works, the barbarian scrawl and the hallucinogenic ode to incoherence? If only Halbreich could say.

Polke was haunted by history at a time when his countrymen suffered from collective amnesia. Born in Silesia in 1941, he fled westward with his family in 1945 as the Soviets advanced, and then again in 1953, to escape Communist east Germany. He grew up against a backdrop of psychological denial and the silent sloughing-off of the Nazi past. “I didn’t see anything” was the mantra of his parents’ generation. Polke attacked that wilful blindness, seducing viewers with the decorative swastikas that rocket through his drawings like super-powered moths, or the mutable, sparkling concentration camp towers that glower over his later canvases. Contemptuous of left and right, he climbed the throne of the sceptic, debunking politics, science, religion, and any system that offered a crutch of meaning.

His first paintings, influenced by American Pop art, rendered ordinary objects – a bar of soap, chocolate wafers, a trio of mismatched socks – with studious banality. He also adapted Roy Lichtenstein’s Benday dot structure, enlarging a clipping from a newspaper and projecting it on to canvas, then tracing each half-tone dot by hand. His artisanal Pop recalibrated mass images as personal expressions.

‘Watchtower’ by Sigmar Polke
‘Watchtower’ (1984)

Polke is often seen as a more politicised version of Andy Warhol. Both artists shared a morbid streak: Warhol’s “Tuna Fish Disaster” (1963) lingers on the faces of poisoning victims; his shiver-inducing electric chairs tremble with deadly current. Polke monumentalises Lee Harvey Oswald in blotchy grisaille. His “Girlfriends” slouch and preen like toothsome vampires. Both painters filtered out sentimentality and produced mementos of ghoulish obsessions.

But Polke proved less radical in the end. Warhol dropped the drippy pop expressionism of his early years for more objective method of silkscreening; he seized the future and looked forward to life as a machine. Polke, though, turned inwards: in the 1970s he became surprisingly conservative, a backward-looking romantic who channelled Blake and Goya. He laminated kitschy printed fabrics with art-historical allusions and overlaid those with streaks of paint, oil and other chemicals. “This is How You Sit Correctly” (1982) plays out against a fabric backdrop of romping puppies, with stencils from Goya’s “Caprichos” and Max Ernst’s graphic novel Semaine de bonté interwoven with broad swaths of paint. The upshot was an influential brand of self-indulgent surrealism.

By the 1980s, he had settled on more weighty subjects. Outlines of a watchtower – a symbol of surveillance, oppression and incarceration – began to decorate printed fabrics and bubble wrap. Critics swooned at the frank honesty and the righteous confront­ation with Germany’s appalling past. Polke’s soaring reputation coincided with that of Anselm Kiefer, whose slashed, parched landscapes were even darker and more haunted by history. But Polke never quite adopted Kiefer’s self-lacerating tone. He remained a trickster, proffering catharsis and yanking it back, poking fun at his own piety and at the public’s hunger for depressive German solemnity. Ambivalence was his bedrock belief.

That elusiveness makes for a discomfiting retrospective. The protean Polke always preferred to segment his output by medium, exhibiting only drawings or paintings, or collages. He must have sensed that his career was too sprawling and chameleonic for viewers to digest more than one aspect at a time. He hoped that MoMA would organise his output thematically, rather than try to jam it into chronological order. Halbreich demurred. Her embrace of Polke’s disjointed abundance yields an installation so broad and distracting that individual works blur into the general static.

It’s a strange thing for a critic to say, but the most effective way to see this show might be with blinkers on.

Until August 3. moma.org

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