Smuggled out of East Germany, now in New York
The Art Newspaper
Gabriella Angeleti
9 June 2016

Nearly 50 years after helping the German artist A.R. Penck smuggle his art out of East Germany, the dealer Michael Werner is presenting the first comprehensive survey of early and rarely-seen works by the artist. 

A. R. Penck: Early Works, which opened on 9 June and comes to New York after a run at Werner’s London gallery, marks nearly five decades since the gallerist first began working with the artist. In 1968, the same year Penck adopted his pseudonym (he was born Ralf Winkler), Werner organised his first solo show at the Galerie Hake in Cologne. 

The current exhibition includes more than 20 paintings and sculptures the artist made in Dresden during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the political circumstances in the then-German Democratic Republic “kept most contemporary works of art underground”, says Gordon VeneKlasen, the director of the gallery who organised the show. 

“Most of his early work was inspired by the art books that he saw, which, like his own works, were smuggled between the Eastern and Western Blocs”, VeneKlasen says. The earliest work in the show, Electric Chair from 1959-1960, depicts a young boy being executed on a stage before an audience and was likely influenced by a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885), VeneKlasen says. 

By the late 1960s, German authorities in the Eastern Bloc had largely banned Penck’s works from public view, which made him “unable to show his work for a very long time”, VeneKlasen says.

With the aid of fellow artists like Georg Baselitz and later supporters like Werner, who helped to smuggle his work out of East Germany (“who knows how many works exactly”, VeneKlasen says), Penck garnered recognition outside East Germany, from which he emigrated in 1980. 

“These early works, in one way or another, show the underlying idea of division, and also the direct experience of it”, VeneKlasen says. “They show the division of opposing powers, like the division between the East and the West.”