Press Release

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 - 2010

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) is one of the most experimental artists of recent times. Alongside Gerhard Richter and Blinky Palermo, Polke was a key figure in the generation of German artists who first emerged in the 1960s. This autumn Tate Modern presents the first full retrospective of Polke’s career, bringing together paintings, films, sculptures, notebooks, slide projections and photocopies from across five decades, and including works which have never before been exhibited.

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 is the first exhibition to fully encompass the enormously varied range of materials with which the artist worked. Polke explored ideas of contamination and transformation, working with antiquated and sometimes poisonous pigments, extracting dye from boiled snails, and using materials as varied as gold leaf, meteorite powder, bubble wrap, potatoes, and soot. Photographs were made by exposing the paper to uranium, while paintings were created by brushing photosensitive chemicals onto canvas. The exhibition includes several films where Polke played with double-exposure, just as paintings would have layers of transparent imagery.

Polke was born in Silesia (in present day Poland) in 1941. As the Second World War ended, Polke’s family fled to East Germany, and then to West Germany in 1953. In the 1960s, while a student at the influential Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he created sharp critiques of the growing consumer society of West Germany, transcribing by hand the cheaply printed images he found in mass media to create such works as Girlfriends (Freundinnen) 1965/1966. Political and social commentary was a constant thread throughout Polke’s work, from The Sausage Eater 1963 to Police Pig (Polizeischwein) 1986. His irreverent attitude and ironic humour was a product of the cynicism with which he viewed all forms of authority, and he often confronted the remnants of National Socialism in his imagery, for instance in his haunting series of Watch Towers from the mid-80s which evoke the structures on the perimeters of concentration camps.

The radical cultures of the 1970s played a role not only in Polke’s art but also in his eccentric and unconventional lifestyle. He experimented with hallucinogenic substances and made many works featuring mushrooms. In 1973, he moved to a farm to live and work collaboratively with family, friends and other artists. He also travelled extensively and works in the exhibition will reveal the impact of his visits to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brazil, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and New York. 

Polke became even more experimental towards the end of his career, pushing the boundaries between different media right up until his death in 2010. The exhibition will show how he used photocopiers to make new distorted compositions, while the Lens Paintings made in the 2000s attempt to emulate holograms in their use of semi-transparent layers of materials.

Alibis: Sigmar Polke is curated at Tate Modern by Mark Godfrey, Curator of International Art and Kasia Radzisz, Assistant Curator. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue from Tate Publishing and a programme of events in the gallery. The exhibition is organised by Kathy Halbreich, Associate Director, The Museum of Modern Art, with Mark Godfrey and Lanka Tattersal, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition is organised by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, with Tate Modern,London.