In 1979, the Stasi broke into Ralf Winkler’s Dresden studio and destroyed everything. It was the conclusion of a campaign of harassment against the artist, who rose to popularity as AR Penck by refusing to manufacture social-realist propaganda.
Instead, he used hieroglyphs, strange symbols and signs, apparently childish naïve scrawls, and plain stick figures in his paintings (often with outsized penises). Penck attempted to create a new language, one that combined the verbal and visual, that was both “universal” and “democratic,” and the authorities were correct to be skeptical of this new painting style.
It was a desire formed by the horrors of WWII, especially seeing the devastation of Dresden as a youngster and the resulting dystopia of the German Democratic Republic.
Penck’s visual language, which he dubbed “standard,” seems to be simple enough for anybody to grasp. As he once put it, there’s a “building block system”; a lexicon of themes that can be picked up and played with on the spur of the moment.
Few artists could match Penck’s rhythm and poetry, which he brought to the canvas as a jazz aficionado. His paintings are indicative of the actual world, with their abundance of wide eyes, humanoid figures, creatures, and birds, but they also depend on notions of abstraction, in which noughts, crosses, and other symbols flirt with a work’s surface with a pride in pure artistic motion.
Penck smuggled works to the west to avoid his censors, with the aid of Cologne gallerist Michael Werner, with whose gallery the artist worked until his death in 2017, and who currently represents the Penck estate. A new exhibition at Werner’s London townhouse gallery follows the artist’s career from its beginnings to his ultimate worldwide renown.
Most accounts credit a Stasi raid for his defection in 1980, but it’s more likely that the East Berlin regime sold the artist to their counterparts on the other side of the wall as part of the lucrative and top-secret Häftlingsfreikauf program, which allowed the GDR to bring in much-needed foreign currency while also removing intellectual troublemakers. In any case, it was a welcome reprieve for Penck.
When the artist arrived in Cologne, he hung around with Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer, and Sigmar Polke, nicknamed the Neue Wilde – the Young Savages – by the press. In more technical terms, throughout the 1980s, these painters established neo-expressionism, a style of painting characterized by a harsh emotional pull.
While Penck’s significance to this new genre was affirmed by his inclusion in important survey exhibits such as Zeitgeist at the Gropius Bau in Berlin in 1982 and New Art at the Tate in London a year later, his source material displays a more sophisticated collection of influences.
Penck’s interest in genetics, ecology, systems theory, and cybernetics were influenced by the science fiction he read as a child while the RAF carpet-bombed Dresden, and a set of rarely seen textile sculptures included in the new Werner exhibition highlight his interests in genetics, ecology, systems theory, and cybernetics. Penck’s study aimed to comprehend how people, things, and ideas interacted, how thoughts might be represented without words, and how a road out of the world’s inherent conflict could be traced.
Four works by AR Penck, to be exact
The artist’s interest in systems is evident in one of the exhibition’s first pieces. A guy is shown plucking a fruit, then eating it, and finally defecating. His interior organs are reduced to nodes in a natural ecosystem, rather than exhibiting man’s supernatural dominion over nature.
tskrie VIII was released in 1984
Penck spent time in London as well. The title of the show’s biggest piece is an anagram of the word “strike,” and it pays tribute to the miners’ fight. Despite the abuse he endured in East Germany, Penck was a socialist sympathizer.
“Everything is schizophrenic and paradoxical… reactionary and progressive, decadent and fascistic,” he stated of the politics of his art. “I’m the same way!” “I’m the same way!”
Even though the stick figure has no features, we may presume this is a self-portrait. “Y” was one of many aliases used by Penck (the others being “Mickey Spilane” and “Theodor Marx”).
Werner would show up to Penck’s studio with banned music, books, and, as Penck’s career progressed, bags of West German marks. In exchange, he would sneak out artworks signed under false names.
Despite its cerebral roots, Penck intended youngsters to appreciate his work. His felt sculptures are whimsical, but thousands of drawings in this new exhibition reveal that he constructed the interconnected tubes and balls with a molecular grasp of how people have tampered with nature’s basic building elements.
Four years after the Chernobyl accident, this art was created.