This week I attended a party sponsored by art blogazine Hyperallergic and MoMA PopRally in celebration of the new Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The purpose of the event was to enhance viewers’ understanding of the exhibit by bringing in five guests who would “illuminate aspects of the German artist’s complex body of work through the lens of their respective areas of expertise,” according to the PopRally description. The five experts were a cultural historian, a hallucinogen expert, a conservator, a magician, and a palm reader. Each of them were quite thoughtfully placed in rooms where the artworks correlated to their individual fields and lectured or performed in intervals so that as one wandered through the exhibit, one could see Polke’s work through the experts’ eyes. This was not my personal reality.
Let me preface this by saying that I am a fourteen year old who showed up at this happening with my mother to get a feel for the nightlife-tied art scene and to see the exhibit. As it was a party, I was expecting the open bar, but I wasn’t expecting the 500 other people that came along with it. While I often attend friends’ parties, this had a different vibe that was totally new for me, and the novelty factor definitely contributed to my overall experience. Moreover, so did the crowd.
I was there relatively early and present for the initial speeches given by Magnus Schaefer, Curatorial Assistant at MoMA and Hrag Vartanian, Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic, and then went upstairs to the galleries. I explored the first room, which included a Nazi-like map of German sites and a bizarre Al-Qaeda poster, and a cage sculpture with potatoes on every corner that resembled both a kindergartener’s toothpick and marshmallow structure and a pair of Louboutin Neuron Heels. As I delved in further, I discovered several comic-book-style collages of Bahaus buildings, Polke’s notebooks– including a particularly upsetting one with repeated drawings of a swastika– and paintings that seemed extremely similar to the work of the illustrator Maira Kalman. I found the cultural historian talking about Polke’s influences from German culture in the 50’s and 60’s to be rather confusing, so I moved on to try to get a palm reading with Lauren the Psychic. At that point she had been doing readings for about 10 minutes and already 40 people had signed up, and they politely refused to put me down on the list. This was actually quite fortunate, because I took the opportunity to study very closely the interesting works in that room, including a powerful piece where the image of a clock or a wheel stood center on a piece of wood while wire extended out to photographs of various stoic looking figures. There I realized that I did not really need the special guests to enjoy Polke’s pieces, although I did stop off wherever I saw the special guests talking, if just for the fun of it.
As I continued on my way, I encountered an overwhelming variety in the styles of Polke’s work, ranging from moody and mystical, to light and very Pop-Art, to dark and eerie and bordering on the pornographic. I even watched a documentary of the making of Polke’s highly spiritual windows for a Zurich church. Not only did Polke’s subject matter and techniques evolve over time, but so did his mediums; Polke created a large body of paintings, photographs, prints, some sculpture, and lots of film. You could see hundreds of parallels between his work and the work of many great artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Mark Chagall, etc. What I came to appreciate upon emerging from the exhibit, however, is that the strength of Polke’s work is not in his ability to practice his craft well and to be the best at what he does (which most artists seem to aspire to), but in that he conceived of so many ideas and ways of creating and was able to execute them all according to his particular vision. Polke is a master at being a multi-faceted artist, and for that he deserves our applause, whether or not we enjoy his work.