Along with Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz among others, A. R. Penck rode the wave of German Neo-Expressionism to international prominence in the 1980s. “A. R. Penck: Early Works” is a rousing exhibition of paintings from the 1960s and sculptures from the ’70s at Michael Werner.
Born in 1939 in Dresden, Germany, and raised in what later became East Germany, Mr. Penck had no formal training and little knowledge of contemporary artistic developments in the West. But in his early, vigorously cartoonish paintings of rudimentary symbols and stick figures he showed a precocious understanding of painting as avant-gardist provocation. Note, for example, his comically scatological “Untitled” (1966), which illustrates food progressing through a man’s digestive system, from his stomach to the toilet he’s sitting on and down into a basement septic tank.
By using hieroglyphics, Mr. Penck aspired to create a universal language for addressing all conceivable states of mind and the world. “Primitive Computer” (1968), a grid of 45 simple signs painted on a green field like a keyboard, anticipates the digital future.
The paintings are not always so readily decipherable. In “Heaven and Hell” (1967), the figures, signs and tangled lines painted in black on white illustrate a baffling cosmology. Understandable or not, Mr. Penck’s paintings typically have an infectiously percussive formal aspect.
In sculpture, he favored grungy abstraction. Displayed on pedestals, eight crude constructions from the ’70s are assembled from cardboard, tape, string, aluminum foil and glass bottles. For his works of that time, Mr. Penck coined the term Standart to satirize the standardization of modern life. His sculptures, you might say, represent the sad-sack soul of the externally sleek new commodity.