Sigmar Polke, it seems, was a man slightly obsessed with potatoes. Alongside sausages and swastikas, they’re a recurring motif throughout the body of work on show at Alibis – a fantastic new retrospective of the German artist’s work at the Tate Modern.
While it would be terrifically convenient for pun-enthusiasts were the artist deeply serious – so we could reel out something about being Polke faced without resorting to a sentence this clunky – the beauty of the work is for all its hidden themes (the spectre of the Nazis, notions of oppression), Polke is brilliantly funny.
You can see more than a touch of Polke’s influence in the work of David Shrigley, particularly in his titles.
One room, for instance, features bamboo sticks forlornly standing in a little bucket. The piece, naturally, is called The Attempted Resuscitation of Bamboo Poles. It stands next to a huge flannel daubed in real and arcane German swearwords, the 1968 work, The Large Cloth of Abuse.
The work in the show spans the period between 1963 and the artist’s death in 2010, presenting photocopies, paintings (including the celebrated “raster” images, formed of dots from enlarged magazine picutres), drawings, photography, notebooks, collages and film. But within these categories Polke’s work deftly slips between media and into quite new ways of expression, playfully employing materials like bubble wrap, children’s pyjamas as canvas and even radioactive uranium, which Polke used to create vivid photograms.
Polke was clearly an experimental character in life as well as art, as the section devoted to hallucinogens shows. A large section of one of the 14 rooms in the exhibition is devoted to images of mushrooms; seguing nicely into some hilarious “gouaches of absurd pornographic scenes”, as Godfrey terms them. Highlights include an image of a man sprouting palm trees from his penis.
As well as these finalised works, the exhibition shows Polke’s many notebooks, either as static pieces or on screens that slick through the pages for you. We loved his experiments with photocopiers, and the delight the artist found in collating misprinted newspaper images, which went on to inform a number of his 1980s pieces.
That’s not to say that Polke ignored the serious subjects – there’s a clear underlying concern with critiquing modern West Germany’s political and social climates; yet this is never done in a dour, doomy way – but with the playfulness and wit with which he created some of his earliest works, captioned with delicious titles like Sparkling Wine for Everyone.
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 – 2010 runs form 9 October – 8 February 2015 at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG