alice_in_wonderlandSigmar Polke, Alice in Wonderland, 1971, Mixed media on patterned fabric, 118 x 114 inches

It is one of the most cohesive compositions in Alibis, MoMA’s chaotic and often confounding Polke retrospective. What emerges first in Alice in Wonderland (1971, a bit over 10’ by 9’) is a symmetrical arrangement of printed fabrics. A central vertical rectangle with white ovals on black is flanked right and left by green, red, yellow and white repeated vignettes of a soccer game seen from above. These are within a grid leaning rightward, as though in isometric perspective. A horizontal base of white ovals on dark blue runs across the painting’s bottom and also above the central rectangle. The patterned fabrics are oddly paired, with no coordination or harmony of palette or genre. A single visual connection between the soccer ball and the abstract white discs is plausible but may well be incidental. The store-bought fabrics on which Polke painted are generally cheap, domestic decorations designed for popular, perhaps proletarian tastes, nothing that a designer would choose or combine. (Think of the interiors in his near-contemporary, Fassbinder’s films.) The white-oval pattern recalls the hand painted rasters that became a Polke staple beginning with his 1963 drawing of Lee Harvey Oswald. The soccer field fabric, unlike this abstraction, depicts the popular sport. Here it was intended for domestic consumption.

These commercial cloths, one abstract, one descriptive, serve as substrates for the white drawing that floats dreamlike over the patterned ground. It appears only secondarily: a hookah-smoking caterpillar sitting on a mushroom cap, young Alice standing on the ground behind it, looking up. The caterpillar’s body is whitish and the top of his mushroom seat is brushed with red, as are the two Amanitas below him. A few flowers are touched with yellow. Polke has projected and copied the famous illustration by John Tenniel who, with Lewis Carroll, surely intended the scene and much else in the story as psychedelic phenomena, a central theme in much of Polke’s oeuvre. On the right panel a whitish, silhouetted basketball player, also borrowed from somewhere, makes a jump shot. Athletics connects the soccer theme to the basketball player. Whatever can be the connection between the psychedelic subject, crucial to Polke’s work at this time, and popular sports?

Polke’s piling-on of low-end materials, by the way, does not feel like collage. It has nothing to do with the lucid, fugal juxtapositions of Braque’s and Picasso’s Cubism. “Mash-up” may be a better term for his method. Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, all no doubt influential, followed the procedures they devised in a consistent manner; by comparison they are classic modernists (or post-modernists if you prefer). Polke’s refusal of stylistic coherence is, but for his influence on younger artists, sui generis. His juxtaposing, superimposing, and sewing together patterns and images, his plethora of incompatible visual fields, styles, references, materials, and codes amounts to an assault on bourgeois culture. Has anyone pushed the attitude of anti-art so relentlessly? Beyond attacking notions of esthetic unities and good taste, he seems to intentionally abjure coherent communication. The Alibis exhibition’s dense arrangement amplified the spirit of distraction characterizing many of the individual works. Staying focused amid closely hung works of contrasting mediums, along with cacophonous, overlapping tracks of aggressive music, becomes a test of a viewer’s determination. The high noise-to-message ratio made viewing as irritating and engaging as confronting the chaos of urban life, attentions scattered as though in drug-induced confusion.

Polke is the only painter of his stature who, in my opinion, shows so few traditional studio skills but nonetheless makes compelling paintings, sculpture, prints, and other objects by the strength and confidence of his ideas. He simply makes one thing after another without second-guessing. Apart from such considerations, so much of his work eludes interpretation. But there is nothing, to my eye, adolescent in his rejection of traditional or contemporary aesthetic attitudes. Adorno’s thinking is certainly relevant: “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter…. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Catalog essays and reviews have understandably focused on Polke’s biography and the devastating social/historical circumstances in which he grew up and worked. It follows that critical discussion of his art is content-based rather than aesthetic.

So much of his work runs counter to my personal taste and my own penchant as an artist for self-judgment that I am struck by its grip on me. Having been back several times for extended viewings, it was this discomfort that displaced my earlier intention to write on one of those much loved paintings that for years has been encoded in my aesthetic DNA.

And Alice in Wonderland is far from being the only terrific painting in the show, which in its disconcerting entirety is sure to challenge many.

Ginkaku-ji Coins #1_56318Robert Berlind, Ginkaku-ji Coins #1, 2012, Oil on linen, 54 x 60 inches
One of a series of paintings resulting from a five month stay in Kyoto in 2011.