In 1985, A. R. Penck told curator Klaus Ottmann that he didn’t miss East Germany, where he had been born in 1939 and from which he was exiled in 1961. East Germany, Penck said, “disappeared in a black hole”—it was totally behind him. But, of course, his homeland and everything he lost when he left it stuck with him for the remainder of his life, which ended Tuesday when the Neo-Expressionist artist died at 77 of “a lengthy illness.”
For the past five decades, Penck explored how signs, numbers, and symbols could become abstraction. Like his Neo-Expressionist colleagues Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, and Markus Lüpertz, Penck relied on a style that appeared childlike, even at times resembling cave paintings and outsider art. His paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures attempted to find a universal language—one that could address the trauma, sadness, and loss that followed World War II but that would also affect viewers beyond Germany.
Having risen to fame during the early ’80s, Penck was part of a wave of painters coming out of Germany who received acclaim in New York. His ’80s paintings are recognizable for their vibrantly colored, energetically arranged compositions that incorporate what Penck termed Standart, a fake alphabet of sorts that the artist designed. To contemporary eyes, they evoke Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired canvases, but Penck himself didn’t consider his work to take its cues from street art.
Instead, Penck often looked to other art-historical sources, notably prehistoric art and German Expressionist prints, in particular those of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. He took from these works their minimally painted figures, which were often silhouetted using thick black lines, and arranged them along sharp diagonals. While working, Penck would often think about jazz music—the artist himself was a drummer and a member of the band Triple Trip Touch in the late ’80s. (He once called music his “biggest hobby.”)
Compared to the work that brought him fame when it was shown in New York at Sonnabend Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery, Penck’s early work was more melancholy and less colorful. His ’60s and ’70s paintings, the subject of a recent show at New York’s Michael Werner Gallery, are relatively pared down, sometimes featuring just a single stick figure that would serve as a stand-in for an emotion or an idea. Other works from that period tackle the art world itself, with schematic figures that mechanically produce paintings, each of which look identical.
A. R. Penck was born Ralf Winkler in Dresden, Germany, in 1939. He renamed himself in 1968 after Albrecht Penck, the German geographer who was among the first to identify several ice ages. As a child, Penck witnessed firsthand the effects of World War II when, in 1945, Dresden was decimated by a series of bombings. Although large parts of Germany were destroyed during the war, Penck remained there for several decades, including after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961.
Penck never formally studied art and was, in fact, rejected from several art schools. Instead, he learned to paint primarily by observing work by masters. As he created his early works, he would reflect on paintings by Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh, both of whose styles he would attempt to emulate.
In 1969, Penck had his first major solo show, at Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne. Because Penck had changed his last name and effectively assumed another identity, he was able to confuse border officials, who allowed his work to travel beyond the Berlin Wall. By 1980, however, he was exiled from East Germany and decamped for Berlin. Around that same time, he found fame in New York.
Penck went on to participate in the 1984 Venice Biennale, as well as in four editions of Documenta. In 2007, his work was the subject of a retrospective at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle. His paintings are currently on view in a solo show at Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul, France.
Since rising to prominence in the ’80s, Penck’s work fell out of fashion with New York audiences in the decades after. In the past few years, however, there have been signs that young painters are once again looking to Neo-Expressionists like Penck, whose work had been shown in several recent exhibitions at Leo Koenig and Michael Werner Gallery. His early work, in particular, struck a chord with critics, who were drawn to the layered imagery of his ’70s paintings. In a time when painters are once again exploring the sticky relationship between figuration and abstraction, between universal symbols and personal mythologies, it is easy to see Penck’s work as prescient and lasting.