With the way art history is being written and rewritten these days, Neo-Expressionism is pretty much the odd man out. For one thing, its perpetrators were mostly painters and mostly male. For another, they tended to approach their work without the obvious Conceptual underpinnings that are now so de rigueur. Among the Germans, only the consistently subversive and innovative Sigmar Polke, never really a card-carrying Neo-Expressionist, has genuine street cred right now, while Anselm Kiefer has settled into a particularly overbearing style and a gassy form of art stardom.
Their brethren, artists like Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff and A. R. Penck, slip in and out of view, at least in this country. Now is a good time to look at Mr. Penck, in many ways the most visionary and accessible of this cohort. The best paintings he’s made in years are at the Upper East Side gallery of Michael Werner, the German art dealer who gave him his first solo show, in West Berlin in 1969. This display is fleshed out by “A.R. Penck, Before the West,” a fascinatingly scrappy show of early work at the Leo Koenig gallery in Chelsea: paintings, sculpture and collages from the ’70s, when Mr. Penck was something of a dissident artist in East Berlin, smuggling paintings out and art materials (and Deutschmarks) in.
Born Ralf Winkler in Dresden in 1939, Mr. Penck chose to stay in East Germany when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, while others (Mr. Baselitz, for example) headed to the West. He had, for a while, a certain faith in Socialism. (To disguise paintings being smuggled to the West, he signed them with different names, including Theodore Marx.) Mr. Werner saw to it that there were Penck shows all over West Germany, and also Switzerland, in the 1970s, so Mr. Penck was protected by a certain amount of fame; this meant that the secret police, the Stasi, didn’t touch him; its agents just watched and harassed.
There is symmetry to these two shows because of their openness, the kind that customarily comes at the beginning and toward the end of long artistic careers. These may be the points when artists are most open to anything because, in very different ways, they have less to lose.
At Koenig we see Mr. Penck experimenting with different styles and subjects. He moves toward the hieroglyphic, so-called neo-primitive pictographs, symbols and patterns, usually in black on white, that would become his signature style; this scheme’s noticeably male stick figures seem at once powerful and hapless, as if they caused the chaos that swirls around them. The compact “Structure” of 1974 is a wonderful example of this strain. (It also exemplifies the uncanny skill with which Mr. Penck intuited where the stretchers — which the paintings acquired only once they were in the West — would eventually crop the images. His fields of paint are almost always perfectly haloed by a narrow, unruled margin of bare ground.)
But more often at Koenig, Mr. Penck is far afield of his pictographs, rifling through pop culture and art history for ideas. In “Jutta” (1977) he layers random images in ways that bring to mind Polke or David Salle. In “Ali Alpha Tor” (1975) he wrestles German Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism into a jagged, allover truce.
And he riffs on older styles. The 1973 “Russian Painting,” with its propeller-searchlight composition in red, yellow, green and blue suggests something Malevich might have made, after much vodka, to glorify the Soviet Air Force. Mr. Penck’s passion for jazz is evident in the jumbled faces and instruments in a work in red, yellow, green and black that could be scrawled on the wall of a club.
The continual scrounging for materials is evident too. (Art supplies were doled out only to approved artists; Mr. Penck had failed even to get into art school.) Tablecloths, bedsheets and felt substitute for canvas; exceptional sculptures are fashioned from wadded aluminum foil, tied-together tin cans and cardboard boxes, which sometimes occasion witty drawings.
There are rough-surfaced collages. One marshals a field of postcard and magazine images beside the heads of two Cézanne card players, as if considering alternatives. Another scoffs at Social Realism by amassing newspaper images of East German Olympic athletes and crossing each out with a big black X. A third slaps together big scraps of cut and torn corrugated cardboard with results that would inform the Cubist displays at the Museum of Modern Art in revealing ways.
Things are not nearly as hand-to-mouth at the Werner gallery, where Mr. Penck, who moved to West Germany in 1980, has clearly had all the supplies he could wish for. In 10 canvases from 2010 and 2011, the pictographs and their fields of symbols return, but in altered states.
They are simply re-energized in black-on-white paintings, like “The Flow of Events,” which remind us that Mr. Penck’s cosmos is a precursor to Keith Haring’s antic renderings. They’re seen in magnified, abstracted close-up in “Advance” and “Opening,” two works in gray that neatly evoke cave painting, Constructivism and Morse code. They’re softened and upholstered in the red and blue of “System — Problem — Abstract,” which veers toward the compartmentalized pictographs of Joaquín Torres García.
And they are relegated in simplified form to the hide of a prowling tiger in a work that, recalling Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, points to Mr. Penck’s German Expressionist roots. Two of the strongest works are semi-abstract landscapes that give the pictographs a geological setting, embedding them in sediment of yellow, red or green (day) or blue and brown (night, with rats). The nocturnal “Landscape — Remote,” with its cohabiting dinosaurs and rodents, is especially strong. Humans have left the scene; chaos reigns. Americans may be reminded of Stuart Davis, a different kind of cosmos-conjurer, who left other artists so much to do.
At this point, Mr. Penck and the Neo-Expressionists, German and otherwise, seem to be mostly out of fashion. But certain artists and styles are inevitably left out of the prevailing vision of the past or the present. This happens for whatever reason — shortness of attention span, lack of tolerance or narrowness of taste. But history is always in flux. Each rewriting, like each writing, will be reworked by subsequent generations.
“A. R. Penck, Before the West: Select Works From the 1970s” continues through Feb. 23 at Leo Koenig, 545 West 23rd Street, Chelsea; (212) 334-9255, leokoenig.com. “A. R. Penck: New Paintings” continues through March 8 at Michael Werner, 4 East 77th Street, Manhattan; (212) 988-1623, michaelwerner.com