Stick men, scribbles and all that jazz: how AR Penck made great art simple | Art
In 1979, the Stasi entered Ralf Winkler’s studio in Dresden and sacked the place. It was the culmination of a campaign of harassment against the artist, who came to prominence under the pseudonym AR Penck, for refusing to make social-realistic propaganda.
Instead, his paintings featured oft-repeated hieroglyphics, odd symbols and signs, seemingly childish naive scribbles, and simple stickmen (often with oversized penises). The authorities are right to be wary of this new pictorial style: Penck seeks to construct a new language, mixing linguistic and pictorial, at the same time “universal” and “democratic”. It was a wish born out of the trauma of WWII, especially witnessing the destruction of Dresden as a child, and the ensuing dystopia of the German Democratic Republic.
Penck’s visual language, which he called “standard” is, at least on the surface, a language that could be mastered by anyone. There is a “building block system,” as he once said; a glossary of patterns to pick and play as you wish. In fact, few would bring the rhythm and lyricism that jazz fan Penck brought to the canvas. With their profusion of googly eyes, humanoid shapes, beasts and birds, his paintings are suggestive of the real world, but they also draw on abstraction theories, in which zeros, crosses and dots other symbols flirt on the surface of a work with a pride of pure pictorial gesture.
Escaping his censors, Penck smuggled paintings west with the help of Cologne gallerist Michael Werner, whose artist worked with the gallery until his death in 2017, and who now represents the Penck domain. A new exhibition at Werner’s Gallery in London traces the artist’s career, from his beginnings to the international fame he eventually found. Most evidence indicates that it was the Stasi raid that catalyzed his defection in 1980 but, more likely, the East Berlin regime sold the artist to his counterparts across the wall as part the lucrative and top-secret Häftlingsfreikauf program, which enabled the GDR to bring in much-needed foreign currency and get rid of intellectual troublemakers. Either way, for Penck, it was a relief.
Based in Cologne, the artist frequents Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke, a gang that the press has dubbed the Neue Wilde – the Young Savages. More formally, throughout the 1980s, these artists developed between them a neo-expressionism, a form of painting characterized by its brutal emotional force. While Penck’s importance to this new genre has been confirmed by his appearance on key poll shows, Zeitgeist at Gropius Bau, Berlin, in 1982, and New Art at the Tate, in London, a year later, the artist’s raw material reveals a more nuanced set of references.
The science fiction that Penck read as a child while RAF carpet bombarded Dresden remained an enduring influence, while a set of rarely seen textile sculptures, included in Werner’s new exhibit, underscore his interests in genetics, the ecology, systems theory and cybernetics. With his work, Penck sought to understand how people, objects and ideas rub against each other, how thoughts can be expressed beyond words, and how a path out of the conflict inherent in the world can be charted. .
Go figure: four works by AR Penck
In one of the first works in the exhibition, the artist’s interest in systems is exposed. We see a man picking a fruit, before showing it eating and finally defecating. Far from demonstrating man’s divine supremacy over nature, his internal organs are reduced to knots in a natural ecosystem.
tskrie VIII, 1984
Penck also spent time in London. The title of the largest work in the exhibition is an anagram of “strike” and is a tribute to the struggle of the miners. Despite the harassment he suffered in East Germany, Penck was sympathetic to socialism. “Everything is paradox and schizophrenic… reactionary and progressive, decadent and fascist,” he said of the politics of his work. “So I am! You are too!”
We can assume that this is a self-portrait, although the man with the stick has no features. “Y” was one of the many names Penck exhibited under (others include “Mickey Spilane” and “Theodor Marx”). Werner would arrive at his studio, depositing prohibited music, books, and, as Penck became successful, bags of West German marks. In return, he would smuggle signed paintings in fictitious appearances.
Penck wanted children to enjoy his work, despite its intellectual foundations. His felt sculptures are playful, but dozens of sketches included in this new exhibit reveal that he designed the interconnected tubes and balls with a molecular understanding of how humans altered the very building blocks of nature. This work was carried out four years after the Chernobyl disaster.
AR Penck: Systems – Felts and paints is at the Michael Werner Gallery, London, for February 19.