A.R. Penck at Michael Werner
Art in America
Jonathan Gilmore
June 2005

The German Neo-Expressionist A.R. Penck came to be known in the U.S. in the 1980s for paintings with pictographic, neo-primitivist imagery of human figures and other totemic forms. His sculptures, though less familiar, evoke the primordial themes of his paintings and drawings, but are created from ordinary or debased materials that allow distinct expressive effects. This show of sculpture from the late '60s to 1986 was held together by a leitmotif that runs through Penck's work generally: the idea of the "standart." A neologism (carrying the dual meaning of flag and measure in the English "standard" and the German "standarte"), the term denotes for Penck an elemental figure that is a generic model for imitation and reproduction but also an expression of a group's identity. 

Many of the works on view had a laconic, mundane air deriving from both the modesty of their constituent parts (common wood, bottles, cardboard boxes, tin cans, masking tape, tinfoil, wire) and the rudimentary manner in which they are painted and assembled. One piece from 1972-73, titled--as were several others in the show--Standart Model, is a gray-painted construction comprising a mason jar set into a hole in the side of a cardboard box. Another Standart Model from 1972-73 is a liquor carton tied together with twine, to which a couple of short cardboard-and-packing-tape tabs have been affixed. And a third Standart Model is made up of empty green-bean cans strung together with twine. 

Despite the seemingly anti-art and readymade quality of these constructions, they evince a symbolic nature, suggesting archetypical visual representations of human beings. The open mason jar, for example, has been painted orange on the inside, perhaps to indicate an open mouth. Another piece, vertically oriented and created entirely out of packing tape wound around itself, has a tip that is bent over like the nose of a drooping head. Even more saliently anthropomorphic forms include a squat, upright mass of tinfoil from 1968-69 and Hop (1982), a roughhewn, white-painted, twisting wood sculpture, both of which suggest the brooding stone heads of Easter Island and other prehistoric Oceanic art. 

Although such pieces have a totemic air, they don't appear as merely general symbols or emblems. Rather, they seem to evoke particular beings, pointing not so much to concepts or beliefs as to their specific, material embodiments. Definition of Similarity(1970-71) is a construction comprising a phalluslike bottle wrapped in masking tape that rests partway in a hole in a box, and a headlike form created out of bunched newspaper, also wrapped in masking tape, lying on its side atop the box. Although the work suggests a primitive fetish referring to an abstract idea, it has far greater immediacy as an image of bodily abjection.