German artist A.R. Penck’s paintings from the late 1960s and ’70s, which display stick figures and rudimentary markings, are today widely regarded as emblems of postwar existential angst and Cold War discontent. His work was ubiquitous in international exhibitions in the 1980s, situated as it was at the forefront of the Neo-Expressionist movement that dominated European painting of the period and included like-minded German artists such as Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, and Markus Lüpertz.
This recent exhibition at Michael Werner was unusual in that it featured Penck’s early works and focused on the development and evolution of his idiosyncratic iconography. The earliest painting on view was a conventional figure study from 1959–60 titled Elektrischer Stuhl (Electric Chair). It depicts a barefoot young man strapped to an electric chair, with onlookers to one side. The palette is rich and subtle, with grays and tans enmeshed in deep blacks, creating a fraught atmosphere redolent of Goya. Much less traditional in its figuration, Ralf (1962) is a crudely drawn outline of a figure whose body is punctuated by a bleeding heart and enlarged genitalia. Hurriedly painted letters, numbers, and other markings scatter across the background.
Penck was largely self-taught, and gruesome images like these help explain why he was constantly rejected from the Dresden-area art academies to which he applied. Born Ralf Winkler in Dresden in 1939, the artist witnessed the almost complete destruction of his hometown in World War II, an event that would have a lasting impact on his work. In the late 1960s, he renamed himself A.R. Penck, after a German geologist, Albrecht Penck, who died in 1945 and had specialized in the Ice Age. This fake identity confused the authorities and allowed the dissident artist to more easily ship and exhibit his works abroad, before he relocated to Düsseldorf, in 1980.
In the late 1960s, around the time of his first solo exhibition, at Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne, Penck began to garner significant international attention for his “Standart” series of paintings and sculptures, which formed the core of this Werner exhibition. Generally, the “Standart” works have an ambitious conceptual aim—to create a new language, a system of signs and figures that integrate text and image. The sculptural pieces employ found objects. In the taped-together construction Standart-Modell (1972–73)—an abject piece that resembles a work of Arte Povera—a used paintbrush, affixed with a metal handle, protrudes from the top of a cardboard lightbulb box.
The “Standart” paintings depict elementary forms in a limited palette and in shallow spaces. A large dispersion-on-blanket example from 1969 reveals the seeds of Penck’s familiar iconography and cosmology. Long fascinated by geology and prehistoric cave paintings, Penck filled the canvas with a standing stick figure in thick black lines. A loop at the top indicates a head, while between the legs are schematically rendered genitals. Light blue lines over the black reiterate the figure; two shapes—resembling a “t” and a “y”—on each side disrupt the gray monochrome ground. On some level, the image seems to have represented for Penck the prehistoric man, without hope or despair. The archetype suggests a harking back to the origins of artistic expression in order to propose for humankind a new beginning.