With some sixty years of artmaking behind him and impressive honors to show for it, A. R. Penck nonetheless remains a somewhat misunderstood figure. Self-taught, and a relatively late émigré from what was then still the German Democratic Republic in 1980—contemporaries such as Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter had moved west as early as 1957 and 1961, respectively (in Richter’s case just before the Berlin Wall went up that year)—Penck emerged at a tangent to the Western neo-avant-gardes even as he remained untouched by the traditional representational criteria taught by the East German academies. And all this took place sub rosa: The East German Ralf Winkler was not exhibiting in the West under the pseudonym A. R. Penck on a whim.
If Penck’s relatively secluded development goes some way toward accounting for his oblique relation to the contemporary art scene in which he has nonetheless been a major participant, it can’t explain the surprising parallels with another major artist more than twenty years his junior: Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both were to a great extent received as proponents of an artistic current called neo-expressionism despite their work having little in common with expressionism or even, for that matter, any fundamentally pictorial tradition. And both were far more concerned with language, diagrams, and sign making than with imagemaking. Annabelle Ténèze, in her essay for the catalogue to this exhibition, “A. R. Penck: Early Works,” quotes the artist describing his work of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which he called “Standart,” as “a kind of conceptual art—a term that I was not aware of at that time.” If “conceptual art” is taken to denote a stylistic canon—the predominance of technical reproducibility over the handmade, a preference for visual neutrality, the deployment of quotidian, disposable media in preference to painting, and so on—then Penck’s assertion may seem very strange, and his absence from standard reference works on the subject is completely understandable; but if “conceptual” means the primacy of sign over image, then Penck is right to claim the word, just as Basquiat would have been.
Providing an in-depth survey of Penck’s paintings of the ’60s as well as sculpture from the first half of the ’70s, this exhibition (which was previously mounted at Michael Werner’s London gallery) demonstrates the artist’s fascination, at least from the mid-’60s on, with the form of communication over its specific content. As the neologism “standart” suggests, he was continually pointing toward the possibility of a generic painting—not attempting to realize this idea so much as to allegorize it, most overtly in such works as Untitled (System Painting), 1966. This interest in the generic remains constant even in spite of his sometimes pointed choice of subject matter, which could be incendiary for the time and place in which it was made—I’m thinking of paintings such as Umsturz (Coup d’Etat), 1965. Penck’s (usually male) stick figure is not so much an embodiment of Baudelaire’s “childhood recaptured at will” as it is a potentially universal signifier.
Perhaps the most surprising things in this exhibition, however, were the sculptures, primarily made of cut cardboard boxes combined with other ready-made objects such as glass bottles, cans, and even a paintbrush, sometimes overpainted in gray. As the paintings are communications with inscrutable messages, these sculptures are containers with only implicit content. Others are modeled in aluminum foil. One might be reminded, at times, of the sculpture of Cy Twombly—another painter who privileged language over the image, yet who, like Penck, admitted a greater degree of enigmatic silence into his work in three dimensions.