A dramatic soundtrack of electric organ music – cinematic in its 1970s thriller-like crescendos and distortions – accompanies a film flickering across a small monitor. Titled Terror in Dresden (1978), the work is a neat opening gambit for the Albertinum Dresden’s major retrospective of A.R. Penck, born Ralf Winkler, who died in 2017 at the age of 77. The Super 8 camera pans across the city streets: fragments of mundane footage in black and white or muted colour are montaged together; fuzzy close-ups reveal pedestrians crossing the central square; the camera dwells for painful periods on the apparently incidental and bromidic – a parked car, a fountain, clouds, curtains, shop-signs. The trivial slips into the sinister as the film cleverly riffs on the so-called banality of terror that characterized the Stasi surveillance culture of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), with the infamous intelligence service collecting and collating an excess of (mostly futile) documentation on its citizens’ everyday lives.
At the same time, the title knowingly plays – via occasional shots of the ruins of Dresden’s Frauenkirche – on the impact of the city’s extensive bombing during World War II, which Penck witnessed as a child. But the dramatic history and psycho-geography of Dresden is deliberately inverted and given humorous, situationist and performative twists: at one point, the grating synth music climaxes as ducks swim uneventfully in a local park’s pond, rendering absurdist the supposed tyranny of repression that defined East German life. Superficially modest, Terror in Dresden is pregnant with its own complex historicity and lived experiences. (The soundtrack for the originally silent film was recorded in 1996, for instance, when Penck played an organ whilst the work was screened at Potsdam’s Filmmuseum.) From a post-reunification perspective, the footage of church ruins has added symbolism, being also the site of a 1989 peace protest that played a key role in the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall.
One of the best-known artists to have emerged from the GDR, Penck left the country in 1980 and, unlike many of his peers, received widespread recognition in the West; in 1988 he was granted a prestigious professorship at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Often grouped with Jörg Immendorff and Markus Lüpertz, Penck was a figurative and pictographic painter known for his characteristic stick figures and icons, or what he called his ‘Standart’ canvases. Alternatively, he has been perceived as an isolated, non-conformist enfant terrible. Yet, as Matthias Wagner’s expertly curated show makes clear, Penck was neither simply a figurative painter nor a solitary dissident: rather, his work thrived on collaboration and connection. The other two pieces in the relatively sparse first gallery underscore this point: a vitrine containing several copies of Penck’s Ich bin ein Buch kaufe mich jetzt (I Am a Book, Buy Me Now, 1976) and the experimental improvised jazz vinyl LP Gostritzer 92 (1979), which takes its name from the artist’s studio where the band met regularly. (Penck also designed the cover.) Alongside the film, these works claim Penck as an artist fundamentally engaged in collective, performative and multi-media/musical practices.
The monumental hall that comprises the exhibition’s second space includes some of Penck’s best-known canvases. However, it is his sprawling and enthralling interdisciplinary work – Super 8 films projected on variously sized screens; vitrines of artist books, many made collectively as part of the group Lücke; his substantial musical output – that is literally given centre-stage in a series of chronologically organized partitioned spaces. Often situating the artist in relation to the local Dresden scene that was so crucial to his development (largely outside of the academy), the exhibition also contextualizes Penck’s artistic production in terms of the collectives he engaged with – from the circle that developed around the experimental filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher and his informal evening art school of the late 1950s to the Obergraben Presse, an independent printing workshop Penck co-founded in 1978. We see collaborative sketchbooks and portfolios, several canvases produced collectively by Lücke and 28 LPs that are available to listen to.
Penck’s remarkable musical achievements highlight the centrality of anarchic jazz to his artistic practice, particularly after he moved to the West, in terms of the value he placed on group improvisation: aside from founding the band Triple Trip Touch, Penck also performed, often as a drummer, with international jazz greats such as Jeanne Lee, Butch Morris, Alan Silva and Frank Wright. Featuring a newly commissioned documentary on Penck’s early work by Thomas Claus, Er nannte sich Y – der unbekannte A.R. Penck (He Called Himself Y: The Unknown A.R. Penck, 2019), the exhibition provides a fascinating overview of this significant body of lively experimentalism.