The Museum of Modern Art announces the first comprehensive retrospective of Sigmar Polke
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The Museum of Modern Art announces the first comprehensive retrospective of Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke (German, 1941–2010). Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan). 1974-1978. Watercolor and pen on gelatin silver print, 22 3/8 × 33 13/16″ (56.9 × 85.9 cm). Glenstone. © 2013 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art presents the first comprehensive retrospective of Sigmar Polke (German, 1941–2010) from April 19 to August 3, 2014. Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010 is the first exhibition to encompass Polke's work across all mediums, including painting, photography, film, drawing, prints, and sculpture. Widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the postwar generation, Polke possessed an irreverent wit that, coupled with his exceptional grasp of the properties of his materials, pushed him to experiment freely with the conventions of art and art history. Constantly searching, Polke studiously avoided any one signature style or medium; his method exemplified the definition of alibi, "in or at another place," which also suggests a deflection of blame. This exhibition places Polke's enormous skepticism of all social, political, and artistic traditions against German history and the country's transformation in the postwar period. Four gallery spaces on MoMA's second floor are dedicated to the exhibition, which comprises approximately 300 works and constitutes one of the largest exhibitions ever organized at the Museum. The exhibition is organized by MoMA with Tate Modern, London. It is organized by Kathy Halbreich, Associate Director, MoMA; with Mark Godfrey, Curator of International Art, Tate Modern; and Lanka Tattersall, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA. The exhibition travels to Tate Modern from October 2014 to February 2015, followed by the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, in spring 2015.

The exhibition is organized chronologically and across mediums, ranging from the intimacy of a notebook to pieces that test the architectural scale of most museum galleries. Among the many noted works on view are 13 films by Polke, including eight which have never before been available; a performance made for West German television that was last seen when it aired in 1972; and a group of monumental paintings made entirely of soot on glass that have never been exhibited in the United States.

Viewers will gain a full understanding of every period of Polke’s enormously inventive career, which began with works such a 1963 drawing of Lee Harvey Oswald, in which Polke turned the repetitive mechanics of the assembly line into an artisanal handmade approach by manually transforming halftone imagery lifted from newspapers and magazines. He used this meticulous, complex painting process throughout his career in an attempt to undermine the authority of the printed image. Suspicious of the idealistic aspirations of modernism, in the late 1960s Polke began a series of witty yet brutal paintings that critiqued the transcendent conventions of abstraction.

Simultaneously, he made a series of filmic and photographic self-portraits that reflected the figure of the artist in society, mocking the heroics of the singular genius.

In the 1970s Polke undertook an encyclopedic but not entirely recreational study of hallucinatory drugs from various cultures, journeying to far-off places including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Brazil. Wherever he went, he carried his heavy Beaulieu camera, filming all the time. Many of the films in the exhibition come from this period, suggesting, for example, what life was like on the farm in the town of Willich, where he lived and often collaborated with others. The double exposures that characterize these films became an important motif in other works. The cacophony of everyday images is also seen the drawings, photographs, collages, and paintings of the period.

The 1980s were a time of enormous creative fermentation, when many distinctions such as those between figuration and abstraction, commerce and art, the historical fact and shifting interpretations—collapsed in his work. Simultaneously with his radical abstract works, Polke made paintings addressing urgent contemporary topics, ranging from radioactive contamination to the authority of the state, the aftershocks of the Holocaust, and the hazards of global tourism (including his own). In the 1980s Polke mined the ritualistic properties of his sources and materials, digging deeply into the pre-modern history of alchemy and the occult.

The exhibition allows viewers to see how Polke’s approach enabled one medium to influence another, creating the possibility of greater innovation. For his 1984 painting Watchtower (Bufo Tenin), Polke used silver bromide, a light-sensitive photographic material that continually changes over time, likening the painting to a developing photograph or a cinematic moving picture.

The exhibition includes the monumental late work The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (2002), described by Polke as “a machine painting on fabric,” which measures over 20 feet in height. A digital print on tarpaulin, the work is both a massive print and a painting made without the hand or paint.

A major publication accompanies the exhibition, comprising 16 essays covering the entire span of Polke's intermedial production, a comprehensive narrative chronology, an interview with Benjamin Buchloh on the groundbreaking 1976 solo exhibition of Polke’s work that he curated, an illustrated checklist, and a bibliography of publications from 1997 to the present. Texts are from a broad spectrum of artists and scholars, most of whom have not previously published work on Polke. The authors are Paul Chan, Christophe Cherix, Tacita Dean, Barbara Engelbach, Mark Godfrey, Stefan Gronert, Kathy Halbreich, Rachel Jans, John Kelsey, Erhard Klein, Jutta Koether, Christine Mehring, Matthias Muehling, Marcelle Polednik, Christian Rattemeyer, Kathrin Rottmann, Magnus Schaefer, and Lanka Tattersall.

Sigmar Polke was born in Oels, in the Silesian region of eastern Germany (now Oleśnica, Poland). Driven out of Silesia at the end of World War II in 1945, Polke and his family fled to Thuringia and then in 1953 escaped from East Germany to Düsseldorf. Following an apprenticeship at a stained glass painting workshop, Polke enrolled at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where his fellow classmates included Gerhard Richter, Blinky Palermo, and Konrad Lueg (Fischer). Beginning in 1963, Polke, along with Richter and Lueg, developed a skeptical response to Pop art known as Capitalist Realism, a moniker evocative of both Soviet Socialist Realism and the consumerism that followed from West Germany’s Economic Miracle. In the second half of the 1960s, Polke became a leading figure among younger German artists and participated in important group shows such as Konzeption - Conception (Leverkusen, 1969) and Düsseldorfer Szene (Lucerne, 1969).

Polke was a guest professor at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg from 1970 to 1971, and a professor there from 1977 to 1991, where his students included Albert Oehlen and Georg Herold. In 1975, Polke exhibited in the XIII Bienal de São Paulo, where he won the prize for painting. He was awarded the Golden Lion for painting for his exhibition at the 1986 German Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia. Numerous awards followed, including the Carnegie Award at the Carnegie International (1995), the Premium Imperiale Award for Painting from the Japan Art Association (2002), and the Rubens Prize, Siegen (2007). His last major work, drawing both on his early training as a glass painter and his use of transparency, was a commission for 12 stained glass windows of the Grossmünster in Zurich, Switzerland, completed in 2009.

The last major retrospective, organized for the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn, took place over a decade ago, in 1997. Similarly, while an important 1999 exhibition of Polke’s drawings at MoMA focused on the early period from 1963 to 1974, it has been over two decades since the last grand exhibition of Polke’s paintings in the United States, an exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1990 that traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Brooklyn Museum.

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