Sigmar Polke: Alibis

Tate Modern

9 October 2014 – 8 February 2015

£6.55 with National Art Pass (standard entry £13.10)

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One of the most experimental artists of the 20th century, Polke's work ranges from appropriated mass media images to pictures of mushrooms he painted while on hallucinogenic drugs.

Broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor explains five things to know about Sigmar Polke before you head to this dizzying exhibition.

During his career, Polke worked across style, medium and material; unafraid to change direction or reinvent his methods. This is the first exhibition to pay homage to the full breadth of his artistic exploration, encompassing works made from meteorite dust, bubble wrap, soot, potatoes and dye extracted from boiled snails. Political and social commentary is a constant theme in the artist's work.

He was born in Silesia at the end of the Second World War and in the 1950s his family fled to Germany. As a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Joseph Beuys, he produced biting critiques of West Germany's burgeoning consumer society, transcribing cheaply printed images he found in mass media by hand. These works marked the origins of Capitalist Realism, an anti style of art which he founded alongside Gerhard Richter and Konrad Fischer. Examples on display here include Girlfriends (Freundinnen), for which Polke imitated the effect of commercial newsprint by painstakingly painting single dots with the rubber end of a pencil.

Moving into photography in the 1960s and 70s, Polke travelled across Afghanistan, Brazil, France, Pakistan and North America, capturing his experiences on film. But far from a means of documentary, these images simply served as raw material that he would manipulate in the dark room. Dousing the photographic paper with uranium and playing with double-exposure, he produced multi-layered, collage-like compositions, filled with strange presences and uncertain realities.

In 1973, Polke moved to a farm to live and work collaboratively with family, friends and other artists. During this period, he returned to painting; high on hallucinogenic substances he made many works featuring mushrooms. In the years that followed he began to expand his material range, mixing together traditional pigments with solvents, varnish and toxins to create spontaneous chemical reactions.

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Polke became even more experimental towards the end of his career, and the exhibition includes distorted compositions he created using photocopiers. There are also examples from the Lens Paintings series which used semi-transparent layers of materials to attempt to emulate holograms.

Venue information

Opening times

Daily, 10am – 6pm, Fri and Sat until 10pm (last admission to special exhibitions 45 mins before closing)

"Art Fund" is the operating name of the National Art Collections Fund, a charity registered in England and Wales (209174) and Scotland (SC038331)