NEW YORK - Shortly before his death in 2010, Sigmar Polke completed a commission for a dozen windows to adorn the Grossmünster, a Romanesque cathedral in Zurich. The seemingly incongruous pairing of venue and artist – the cathedral is the seat of an austere Protestant branch, while Polke was a nonbeliever with libertine tendencies including a longstanding affection for hallucinogens – nonetheless produced glorious results. The sometimes trippy stone and colored-glass windows appear in the form of a slide show in the current retrospective Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through 3 August. In the context of this show, the window’s startling blend of experimental techniques representing the abstract and figurative, medieval and modern, piety and humor could be viewed as a summation of themes explored over the course of his five-decade career. Then again, an artist as restlessly experimental as Polke can never be fully summed up.

Sigmar Polke, Modern Art (Moderne Kunst)
, 1968
. Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart
© 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kathy Halbreich, the curator of the MoMA exhibition, has said Polke purposely resisted being tied to any specific style or subject so as to avoid being hemmed in by dealers and the market, and she gathers fully 300-plus works in her attempt to display the range of his experimentation. The museum charts his varied career beginning with examples from the brief but influential Capitalist Realism period in the 1960s, in which everyday items are depicted in a style that mocks Eastern Bloc Socialist Realist painting while also undercutting the embrace of consumerism many perceived in American Pop. A prime example here, Socks, 1963, a painting of three mismatched stockings, all but dares the viewer not to smile. In those same early years Polke was already taking up with other themes that would cycle in and out of his practice: an interest in mixing abstraction and figuration; a fascination with mechanical means of reproduction as seen in his 1963 Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald); an embrace of what was traditionally deemed decorative such as when he chose to paint not on blank canvas but patterned fabric; and a promiscuous borrowing from sources ranging from advertisements to cartoons to Old Master paintings to photographs and films – a method that makes him the crucial bridge between Pop and appropriation art.

Through the 1970s Polke would devote more of his energies to photography, film and performance, before shifting his efforts back to painting and drawing in the 1980s until the end of his life. Perhaps under the influence of his investigations of photo printing methods, his paintings became more technically innovative. The embrace of unusual chemical pigments – as well as his open discussion of his drug use – led to his reputation as an alchemist. The results are layered works, mixing fragments of borrowed imagery and abstract patches that push at the boundaries of perception.

Sigmar Polke's Untitled (Heron), 1966. Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

At Michael Werner Gallery though 7 June an exhibition of drawings from the 1960s reinforces how fully formed Polke’s multifaceted approach was so early in his career. Nearly 100 works made with ball point pen, watercolor, gauche, collage and metallic paint include a riff on the ecstatic imagery of William Blake, monochrome figure studies, surreal landscapes and elegant, spare abstractions.

Sigmar Polke's Untitled, 1985, will be offered in the Contemporary Art Evening sale on 14 May. Estimate $2,500,000-3,500,000.

An important late Polke will be offered in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale of on 14 May. The untitled work, which was executed over a period of more than 20 years and finally completed in 2006, includes a printed enlargement from what appears to be a section from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, patterns that seem to be lifted from fabrics, areas in which the painted is splashed and prayed on, and handprints, which evoke both the childlike and the prehistoric. The main composition even includes the black outline of a gothic arched window, and like his designs for the Swiss cathedral, this monumental creation unites many of the artists themes, while retaining Polke’s essential ambiguity.

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