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Peter Plagens
11 August 2016

A.R. Penck: Early Works

What kind of art would you make if you’d been 5 years old when your hometown of Dresden, Germany, was turned into an enormous fireball by Allied bombing, you were rejected for admission to art schools in East Berlin during the 1950s, you continued to have enough faith in socialism to remain on the east side of the Berlin Wall when it went up in 1961, you had to scrounge for art materials because only government-approved artists received supplies, and you were continuously required to hide your work from the Stasi?

Although notable art is never entirely determined by the “form and pressure” (as Hamlet had it) of social and historical conditions, the crude austerity of A.R. Penck obviously arises from more than individual talent and temperament. Mr. Penck was actually born Ralf Winkler in 1939, but took his moniker—as part of a necessary cat-and-mouse game with the secret police—from the geologist Albrecht Penck.

The standard take on Mr. Penck is that he’s part of the German Neo-Expressionist movement that includes the likes of Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Martin Kippenberger. Those painters practice, however, a kind of juicy bombast (with Mr. Kiefer, more a charred bloviating), while Mr. Penck reduces his ingredients to thickened stick figures on lick-and-a-promise backgrounds, with titles no more enigmatic than newspaper photo captions. The 61/2-foot-wide “Umsturz (Coup d’État)” (1965), for example, shows one group of schematically rendered rebels coming in from the right to confront the back-on- their-heels government minions on the left. A few of the figures hold up big portraits (such as they are) of their champions. A little guy in the middle lifts a sign saying simply, “Ralf.”

While Mr. Penck’s boiled-down, unpretentious honesty with no concessions to finesse is not for everyone, it is powerful and sobering for those with a taste for absolute directness.