Since A.R. Penck’s death in 2017, there has been considerable interest in his artwork. Posthumous solo exhibitions have showcased his bold, restless work, filled with his own self-created symbols. These include A.R. Penck: Paintings from the 1980s and Memorial to an Unknown East German Soldier, both held at the Michael Werner Gallery in New York in 2018, as well as the acclaimed I think in Pictures, a show of Penck’s featured works from the 1970s and 1980s held at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University in 2019.
Penck was born Ralf Winkler in Dresden in 1939. He adopted his chosen pseudonym after the paleo geologist Albrecht Penck out of necessity when the East German State Security began to confiscate his works in the1960s. His art was deemed not to conform to the ideology of the state. In 1969 the Michel Werner Gallery hosted Penck’s first solo show, signaling the beginning of a relationship that would be fortuitous and supportive throughout the artist’s career. Exhibiting in New York was only possible because the artist had changed his name, confusing border officials and allowing his work to pass through the Berlin wall. Michel Werner himself smuggled some of Penck’s artworks out of East Berlin and arranged for friends in the city to deliver art materials to Penck in order for him to continue his practice.
Penck’s Standart works are characterised by a myriad of pictographic marks that the artist viewed as the ‘building blocks’ he used to communicate his ideology, leaving clues and riddles for the viewers of his paintings in this lexicon of coded language. The artist began to explore how symbols, signs, and numbers could be abstracted, creating a common language that could express the sadness and loss of post-World War II Germany in the Cold War era. An example is the letters ‘A’ and ‘B’ it is understood that he is referencing capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany.
Due to this aesthetic, Penck is often associated with artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, although it is more likely that the artist’s style emerged spontaneously. He had little access to the work of his Western contemporaries whilst living in East Germany (German Democratic Republic) which heavily censored any influence that threatened the state.
There has been a resurgence of interest in A.R. Penck’s work in recent years, at a time when contemporary artists are exploring the tenuous relationship of abstraction and figuration, and personal and recognisable iconographies and symbols. This has resulted in his work gaining momentum on the secondary market.
His stick figure was Penck’s most common motif and is given precedence in the lithograph Stick Figure, which is part of the artist’s well known Standart works, which he produced over a number of decades. The works in this series evoke graffiti art, cave paintings, and Asian calligraphy. Here the colourful stick figure takes center stage in the composition. The character could not be more typical of Penck’s chosen subjects. In the 1980s, when his career began to take off. Penck began exhibiting widely in London and New York and participated in the 1984 Venice Biennale as well as four editions of Documenta.
In 1971 Penck was a founding member of the artist’s group GAP, along with Steffen Terk, Wolfgang Opitz, and Harald Gallasch. GAP existed until 1976. Stalin War Nur Ein Spiel is an acrylic on board work in which Penck incorporated a number of found objects including pieces of wood, playing cards and a book about Stalin. The book has been adhered to the board only by the back cover, making it possible to turn the pages. Thus making the information potentially available. The playing cards allude to games and a magician’s tricks. A literal work, all elements directly link to the title, which translates from German to mean Stalin Was Just a Game.
Penck was expelled to West Germany by the GDR Communist regime in 1980, but it proved to be to the artist’s advantage. He was quickly accepted into a milieu of fellow Neo-Expressionist painters. Neo-Expressionism is characterised by rough handling of paint and other materials with a return to bold use of colour portraying recognisable articles, often with personal significance to the artist. Neo-Expressionism came about as a retaliation to the clean, often clinical production of Conceptual Art and Minimalism that was prevalent in the 1970s. It was only in the 1980s that Penck’s work began to find acclaim when it was first shown in New York at Sonnabend Gallery andMary Boone Gallery.
Stasi, which was the name of the former East German Secret Police, was produced in 1990, after the height of Neo-Expressionism, but the work displays a number of the art movement’s characteristics. The bright red that Penck has chosen to use for the amorphous shape on the left of the composition stands out against a dark brown background. There appears to be a figure on the right with a large beak rendered in dark brown and black holding an implement or weapon of sorts. The other hand of the dark figure rests on what we assume to be the shoulder of the red figure. Which could be a figure kneeling or with legs splayed seemingly in submission. A bird hovers above the red figure, perhaps an eagle symbolising the legacy of the Third Reich which still loomed over post-war Germany.
In Stasi, Penck has used such large brushstrokes that they appear to be smeared over the canvas. Using acrylic paint, which dries far quicker than oil paint, the artist would have had to work quickly and it appears that some of the colours were mixed directly onto the canvas rather than on a palette.
Penck’s mixed media work, Die Frage Nach der Staats Sicherheit zeigt Meine Eigene Falsche Haltungtranslates to The Question of State Security Shows My Own Wrong Attitude. The artwork is a recto-verso: the front side of the paper displays a pencil and acrylic work representing purple mountains with a sunset sky, while the reverse is covered with various pencil and pen inscriptions by the artist in German, including the title of the work. The statement may be that the recto was approved by the German State Security because it was mild, acceptable, benign art. The real artwork is hidden, in this case deliberately, on the reverse of the work. – Susanne Duncan
A.R. Penck, Neo-Expressionist Painter Whose Work Reflected on the Postwar German Condition, Dies at 77, Alex Greenberger, ARTnews, accessed 19 January, 2020: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/a-r-penck-painter-whose-work-reflected-on-the-postwar-german-condition-dies-at-77-8236/
A R Penck: I Think in Pictures, Ashmolean, accessed 20 January, 2020, https: //ashmolean.org/event/penck
A Tribute to A R Penck, John-Paul Stonard, Apollo: The International Art Magazine, accessed 20 January, 2020: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/a-tribute-to-a-r-penck/