Considered a Neo-Expressionist, A.R.
(1939 – 2017) is best known for his paintings and sculptures characterized by simplified
figures and forms, and neo-primitive symbols and patterns. His interest lay in the
development of a pictorial language based on a simple system of signs, which would be
possible for everyone to decode. The result was a radical reduction in form to a series of
outlined stick figures, which he called “Standart”, in reference to the signals associated
with commonly known standard symbols. He achieved an abstraction of complex, socio-economic
situations in flat, pictorial compositions infused with symbolism. Penck was driven not by
any system or rational narrative, but by apparent chaos and emotion. In every drawing and
every painting he set out to create a purely visual space where the imagination can thrive
and viewers can lose themselves.
Characteristically simplified in form and ranging from small to large, five
anonymous figures traverse this work, with unruly vigour, identified by the work’s title “The
Rebellion of the Gamblers” . Surrounded by energetic black strokes carefully devised on a white
background, delineating familiar objects such as spears, hammers, an eye and a dice, these pulsating
characters exemplify the artist’s vibrant style, heavily informed by the aesthetic of hieroglyphs
and cave paintings.
The Rebellion of the
Gamblers 2001 oil on canvas, 160,3 x 120,2 cm
(63.1 x 47.3 in)
One noticeable feature of Penck’s style of drawing and painting was the five
different types that emerged: an abstract style dominated by symbols, a figurative style in which
caricatured forms dominated, a purely automatic graphic style, an illusionist manner of working and
a destructive approach.
It is not always possible to say whether a particular motif or visual element
in Penck’s work is realistic, poetic, catastrophic or simply humorous.
Untitled 1994 oil on canvas, 160 x 130 cm (63 x 51.2 in)
Circles, chevrons and further eye-like shapes, some incised with thinner
designs, jostle in a forest of bold symbolic vigour, materialising into a human face in this
composition’s upper half. Replete with seemingly ancient mystery, the work’s impact is hieroglyphic,
cosmic, and immediate.
Untitled 1990 acrylic on canvas, 199,5 x 119,5 cm (78.5 x 47 in)
“Whoever sees my drawings will see very easily that there are about five different
types of images. But we can easily come up with many more, depending on how we characterize them.
The first type is the abstract image, which looks like a sign; the second is the figurative drawing;
the third, the destructive image. What mattered to me was to show that signs can hide behind other
signs, and that my way of thinking makes it possible to pass through this.”
Musicians 1988 acrylic on canvas, 120 x 200 cm
(47.2 x 78.7 in)
Painted in 1988, The Musicians exemplifies the complex
world of symbols and systems that energised the art of A. R. Penck. With its thick, brazen strokes,
the work depicts a dynamic group of musicians, surrounded by graphic icons and geometric patterns
against an expanse of white. The subject is a testament to his love of jazz music; Penck himself was
a keen drummer and played in the band Triple Trip Touch in the late 1980s.
Born Ralf Winkler in 1939 in Dresden, Germany, the
artist adopted his pseudonym in 1968 after reading the work of the geologist Albrecht Penck. A.R.
Penck lived in East Germany until 1980 and unable to exhibit there publicly, he smuggled works out
to West Berlin and Switzerland where he was regularly exhibited. With his work becoming renowned for
its political and social commentary, Penck was viewed as a dissident artist in the East and as a
champion of free speech throughout the West.
The 1980s brought the artist global success; including his participation in the 1984 Venice Biennale
as well as in Documenta 5, 6, 7 and 9. Numerous solo exhibitions worldwide include Kunsthalle Bern;
Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; The Irish Museum of
Modern Art, Dublin; Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Musée d’Art
Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Fondation Maeght, St. Paul, France; and Fosun Foundation, Shanghai,
among many others. His works are held in the permanent collections of leading international
institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate Gallery, London; the Museum of
Contemporary Art, Chicago, Neue Nationalgalerie SMPK, Berlin; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Upon
emigrating to the West, A.R. Penck lived in London, Dublin and Dusseldorf. He died in Zurich,
Switzerland in 2017.