A.R. Penck
Alfred Mac Adam
March 2013

A.R. Penck (born Ralf Winkler) has come a long way since the 1960s, when he, together with Jörg Immendorff, Georg Baselitz, and Markus Lüpertz, were recognized as major artists. All four, along with Gerhard Richter, have shown affinites with German Expressionism, and all have used their national tradition to establish links with their public. Over time, some have deviated from that history of “figuration” or object representation, even abandoning it in favor of total abstraction. But with these ten new paintings, Penck shows that consistency and fidelity to origins are admirable traits. 

Penck is unique among the German painters of the post-World War II era in that, while continuously modifying his style, he has avoided radical mutation. And, unlike the others, he has never, despite reworking themes, become tedious. A look at Im Fluss der Ereignisse(The Flow of Events), 2011, confirms this notion. Black and white, the work echoes Penck’s “cave-painting” thematics, with a stylized masculine figure surrounded by possibly symbolic elements (eyes, a perhaps Minoan deity, spears, a bird of prey, a perhaps fertilized egg) suggesting some fertility rite. But Penck, even as he deploys all these potentially symbolic elements, liberates them from predetermined meanings and narrative destiny. This is no Freudian dream; it is an artistic mind at play. 

Wenn der Zufall es will (If Chance Permits), 2011, riffs on the idea of play, represented here by dice. Again, Penck incorporates a vaguely human icon along with wavy lines suggesting water (formlessness) and a serpentine line suggesting the lines on a hand a palm reader will turn into destiny. The painting’s cultural echoes evoke Mallarmé’s poetic quip “a toss of the dice does no abolish chance,” that is, the commitment of this moment—the composition of this specific work—does not constitute an acceptance of artistic fate. To the contrary, Penck’s roll of the dice simply pauses his esthetic kaleidoscope long enough for him to capture this splendid composition. As he has for decades, Penck invites us to interpret his work, fully knowing it wall always elude us.