How much does medium matter to a work of art? Who and what decides what medium a work is—the artist? the market? the museum? Why does medium matter at all? Does medium matter at all? These are the big questions suggested by the title of Museum of Modern Art’s recent panel on the work of Sigmar Polke, Who Cares If It’s Painting? Polke’s work defies traditional medium categories, often made out of non-traditional materials such as wood, potatoes, batteries, wire, and various chemicals. The five artists on the panel—Carroll Dunham, Glenn Ligon, Ken Okiishi, Frances Stark, and Wolfgang Tillmans—led by curator Kathy Halbreich, attempted to tackle these questions and more while discussing their personal and professional connections to Polke and his work.
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, provides a rare opportunity to see the full range of Polke’s artistic practice: videos alongside paintings, drawings, and sculptural installations. As the title aptly suggests, and as Halbreich draws attention to in her catalog essay, the unified theory of Sigmar Polke seems to center on the idea of the alibi. In the past, exhibitions of his work have focused on only a few media because, according to Halbreich, “they acted as something of an alibi, distraction from the principles of contamination that marked his approach to sources and materials and provided the philosophical foundation for his promiscuous intelligence.” Thus each media taken alone is an alibi, and displayed together, Alibis seeks to reveal a unified theory of Sigmar Polke.
Yet what interested the artists on this panel was not the singular Polke, but rather the contaminated. “I guess all our practices are contaminated practices,” explained Wolfgang Tillmans, “and this exhibition went a step further into bringing that contamination into the visible.” This “contamination” is not just a reference to the mixed-media nature of the exhibition, or the mixed materials that make up Polke’s and the five panelists’ work, but also to the “contaminated” nature of the visual culture that influences artwork, and on which artwork reflects. Media mix constantly in our daily lives. Yet when art enters the gallery space, it is immediately divided into categories and ranked based on a dated hierarchy, which traditionally placed painting at the top. But as this panel and its artists suggest, Who cares if it’s painting?
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010 is on view through August 3, 2014.
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