May 11, 2014

Sigmar Polke at MoMA

Sigmar Polke at MoMA

I recently visited Sigmar Polke’s retrospective exhibition at MoMA. Without having any substantial knowledge of the artist or his work, I decided to take a deep jump into the pool of overwhelmingly filled galleries and hope to leave with at least a sense of the re-known 20th century post-war artist’s career or somewhat of an understanding of his artistic vision.  Identified as a multi-medium artist, Sigmar Polke’s work includes “painting, photography, film, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, television, performance, and stained glass.”[1] As I swam from gallery to gallery, I was immediately perplexed by the amount of all kinds of different art that covered their ceilings, walls, and floors.
Following the printed guide that includes a map of the exhibition with the labels for each piece of work, I attempted to make sense of the curatorial line for this retrospective. The more I saw, and read about Polke the more I realized the wide variety of materials, narratives, styles, and themes embedded in his work; it became obvious then that the curatorial decision for the organization of the exhibition was a chronological one rather than a stylistic one. Since I had come straight from our Curating Moving Images class, I was naturally drawn to specifically observe the films, and other moving images in the exhibition, and try to make sense of the curatorial decisions behind each of them.
In his review for this exhibition written in the New York Times, Holland Cotter writes about Polke as an artist whose wide range of work has always presented a challenge for curators due to the diversity of mediums, as well as the complexity and constantly evolving themes that make up his portfolio. He praises the work of the curators for this exhibition, which does not try to create a linear coherence or narrative of Polke’s work but instead they attempt to let the works speak for themselves respecting the artist’s lack of coherence and constancy throughout his career. He celebrates the curators’ decision to not use ‘object labels’ next to every work in the exhibition but “Instead, and this an excellent idea, they’ve designed a free, gallery-by-gallery, work-by-work checklist, a kind of Baedeker for the perplexed that incorporates some useful commentary. [2] 
After visiting the exhibition, there is no question that Polke is indeed an artist whose work presents an enormous challenge to curate, especially as a retrospective, mainly because most of the art is huge in size (specially the paintings), stylistically diverse, multi-faceted in subject matter, and in its use of mediums.
The overarching feeling that I experienced as I witnessed Polke’s five-decade career was that of overwhelming intrigue, frustration, and impatience. But when I had room to take a step back from the walls, a deep breath and be at a safe enough distance to carefully observe, with a careful consideration of the guide, I was able to truly appreciate some of the magnificent paintings, photographs, drawings, and printmaking that make-up the majority of Polke’s career. However, the films were sometimes projected in 16mm format against a hanging screen from a high point in between an entrance to a gallery, or played in television monitors on the floor situated in the deepest end of a gallery’s corner. Others were projected through HD projectors against a wall that served as a light passageway surrounded by paintings, and photographs. I noticed some of the projectors had a speaker hanging below them, but I was not able to hear the sound in most of these projections. The projection that surprised me the most was one that was shown on a screen that hung in between two walls that served as the entrance to a smaller gallery. I only noticed the screen on my way out and I stopped to look at it but it was hard to decipher the images from my point of view. Generally, the curatorial decisions behind the films were incoherent, and unclear.
I understand that every piece of work was a decision thoughtfully made by someone, so to form part of the retrospective, thus, a work is considered important enough to be shown properly, no matter the medium. Then, why are films ‘hung’ or exhibited in a way that seems less attentive, and considerate than per se, the paintings? Are the decisions to curate the films in a variety of ways following a specific style that the artist usually preferred for this chunk of his work? Judging from the lack of organization, and constancy in Polke’s work, I doubt that he had any specific set of instructions for the way his films should be projected. Then, it is the curators’ responsibility to convey the artist’s vision, yet, in a way that the quality of his work is not sacrificed. I saw no trace of the curators’ concern to aid the viewer in engaging with the films, as much as there is a concern for the photographs, and paintings in the exhibition.
There is no room to appreciate most of the moving images except for the few that are found in dark rooms with benches, projected at a reasonable height, or in a gallery with a light that is low enough to appreciate what is being projected. My favorite gallery, actually, included four slide projectors projecting on two colliding walls with a visually powerful painting next to them that resembled the characters in the distorted images that were being projected.
Overall, the work, and career of Polke is memorable, and engaging, and the exhibition at MoMA is a great place to see it, especially if you are curious about the complexity of curating art made by a wide variety of mediums, exhibited in a wide variety of spaces. Regardless of the unfortunate film curating decisions, the curators manage to creatively create an experience that is a reflection of Polke’s career and work, and provokes for an insightful time well spent.  

“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” opened on Saturday, April 19th and remains on view through Aug. 3 at the Museum of Modern Art.

In conjunction with the film exhibition there are a series of film screenings. You can find the schedule here:

[1] Kathy Halbreich, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 – 2010,

[2] Holland Cotter, Found Everything, Tried Everything, All His Own Way: A Sigmar Polke Retrospective Opens at MoMA,


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