A.R. Penck passed away while the Fondation Maeght’s major retrospective on him was underway. A few days after the sad news, Suzanne Tarasiève gallery also opened an exhibition on the artist. Two paths for tracing the complexity of the work of A.R. Penck. A homage.
A.R. Penck left this world on 2 May in Zurich at the age of 77 years. Symbolically, the exhibition being held on him at the Fondation Maeght is titled “A.R. Penck. Rites de passage”. This will therefore be the last retrospective to be organised on the artist during his lifetime, and also the first homage to be paid to him. Homage accompanied by the exhibition “À travers A.R. Penck” at Suzanne Tarasiève (Paris), which represents several big figures from German painting: Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorff. Only Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter are absent from the list.
A tumultuous life
Ralf Winkler – this was the name he was born under – had a tumultuous life. He was born on 5 October 1939 in Dresden, in a Germany that would be designated as part of the “East” in 1949. Between 1956 and 1966, Ralf tried, unsuccessfully four times, to enter fine-arts schools in Dresden and East Berlin, even if he was not particularly troubled by this failure. He preferred contact with the “renegades” rather than the institutional painters – he would also be denied access to the Society of Artists of the German Democratic Republic. Already, in the middle of the 1960s, he adopted the pseudonym A.R. Penck for various reasons. Firstly, to pay homage to Albrecht Penck, a geologist specialising in the Ice Age. But above all, to get his works across the border more easily and to avoid censorship problems. The artist would take on other aliases: Tancred Michel or Théodor Marx. But the one that would stick would be A.R. Penck.
At that time, he sought to look out beyond the Iron Curtain. In 1968, his first solo exhibition took place in the West, in Cologne – held at the Hake gallery, but organised by Michael Werner. As of 1969, A.R. Penck suffered from pressure from the State’s security services: his drawings were censored and seized, and the Stasi blocked his projects. In May 1979, the collapse of his studio caused him to act. He crossed over to the West on 3 August 1980 and was stripped of his East German nationality. Too bad, even if the world of Capital wasn’t a cure-all either. He moved to Ireland in 1983, where he would remain until 2017.
Wanderings and existential questions
“There’s no such thing as a good painting”… These words spoken by A.R. Penck to his historic gallerist and friend Michael Werner demonstrate the painter’s spirit. Michael Werner occupied a special role in the artist’s itinerary. This was the man who would show his work first, the man who sent it over from the East to the West, the man who welcomed him in his home when times were hard. Penck’s comment wasn’t uttered on a whim, one of those phrases that one casts to posterity to write one’s own mythology. The painter repeated it over ten long years to the young gallerist. “I was still an idealist at the time,” he said with a smile, before adding: “For me, the idea was unbearable.” Michael Werner ends the anecdote in this way: “Since Cézanne, the painter is a man capable of translating his wanderings and existential questions in his paintings.”
And what exactly were A.R. Penck’s existential wanderings? Those of an uprooting, those of a man born into a country forced into schizophrenia, with a desire to construct a universal language, or at least, if not to construct it, then to caress its possibility. This fracture is of course imprinted in the identity of the painter who defected from the East to a surprising West – as illustrated by many of his paintings, namely Flugblatt (Macht – Besitz) (1974). “A German immigrant in Germany is always pursued by his past, his language and his culture,” he deemed.
A universal grammar
The heartbreak of the German division is not the path that the Fondation Maeght has decided to focus on. Ohne Titel (Systembild) (1981), placed at the entrance of the exhibition, gives a better idea of the path followed instead by curator Olivier Kaeppelin. This oil on canvas represents four blue figures standing out against a pale pink background. The first, on the left, lifts what seems to be a sign representing the letter A. A second larger figure in the middle, made up of two legs and two torsos – a lost original twin state? – represents the same letter A, in the same red colour. The two last silhouettes are in the background: the first holding the same sign and adopting an authoritative stance in relation to the second. The painting, at first sight, is disconcerting. Why the letter A? What narration do the three sequences construct? Ohne Titel (Systembild) describes, in turn, a mise-en-abîme of creation and artistic affirmation, a reflection on language and signs, or else on ideological systems and their diffusion. The same feeling continues throughout the exhibition. The works of A.R. Penck lend themselves more to being apprehended than understood. They are open works that leave the floor open to individual projections: works that deal with big human dramas, the relationship of man to society.
Ohne Titel belongs to the Systembild series. Like all paintings from the Standart series with which Penck defined his repertoire of signs, and Systembild, with which he radicalised it, this work is above all an outrageous simplification of pictorial grammar, a compulsory stage for edifying an art with universal reach. A.R. Penck’s works are often neutral backgrounds from which emerge contrasting figures and sprays of colour. These paintings are characterised by a predominance of lines and anthropomorphic silhouettes, the importance of language and meaning systems, the use of simple symbols such as the omnipresent arrow. His work draws from multiple sources, sometimes rock painting, sometimes Asian calligraphy, or else graffiti.
If the artist can be said to belong to a tradition, it is the one that dissolved perspective in representation and mimesis. A tradition encompassing Joan Miró, Paul Klee or Pierre Alechinsky, which inspired Keith Haring as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat – the latter, incidentally, showed work alongside A.R. Penck at the Documenta 7, in 1982. The painter from Dresden would subsequently pay vibrant homage to his fellow painter in the Bronx, with a triptych on display at the Fondation Maeght (Triptyque pour Basquiat, 1984).
A.R. Penck wanted to deconstruct the tower of Babel, to rediscover the archetype of a man removed from deathly ideologies. In the diversity of our means for representing the world, he drew from a common fund, channelled into a system that was all the more rigorous (Systembild and Standart) as A.R. Penck was inspired by the works of William Ross Ashby, one of the apostles of cybernetics. It is in his sketchbooks, masterfully displayed at the foundation, that A.R. Penck’s research is the most searching. Dozens of sketchbooks that bring together phonetic poetry, onomatopoeia, collage, fictional alphabets, ideograms, calligrams, collages, drawings or sketches. Here, he outlines the utopia of a new language. A grammar that A.R. Penck concretely elaborated in the 1970s, but whose first occurrence dates back to 1961. This pictorial language composed of symbols and pictograms emerged for the first time in Weltbild (World Picture), conserved at the Kunsthaus in Zurich. The painting, produced during the construction of the Berlin Wall, represents two groups of black silhouettes on a white background, facing one another in seeming hostility…
A system for exiting space and time
According to Olivier Kaeppelin, “the work of A.R. Penck is anchored in painting and drawing but also poetry, philosophy, the poetics of language”. It is also as a poet that A.R. Penck envisages the death of time leading to a crisis in styles and epochs, through these few lines put forward for the exhibition: “I’ve seen the death of time, the disappearance of movement in movement, through movement.”
An exit from time that is visible first and foremost in A.R. Penck’s distinctive grammar, drawing from the origins and symbolic thought. Also visible in the subjects of his paintings. A.R. Penck alludes, constantly, to this era – perhaps imaginary – of the origins of humanity. Many paintings thus represent flint rock (or are they fissures?), animals from rock paintings, and so on. An exit from time, especially since A.R. Penck didn’t really construct images – which in too many ways were the reflection of an era – but rather concepts, governed by precise, even scientific rules. Works that are images of images. We could also say that A.R. Penck illustrates this generation that became aware of the power of the image and its mise-en-abîme.
At the Suzanne Tarasiève gallery, many of the artist’s paintings and sculptures are on display, most produced in the 1980s and 1990s. The gallery is namely showing a superb series of gouaches executed at the start of the 1980s when A.R. Penck spent a few months in New York. As he started earning a bit more at the time, he had the means to buy tubes of coloured paint. This series stands out markedly from the rest of his production for the brightness of its colours – a contrast emphasised by the fact that the series has never before been shown – and above all the virulence of its abstractions that are comparable to Alechinsky’s. The work of a painter whose reality was complex, composed of affirmations and erasures, as marvellously highlighted by these two exhibitions. Even if the fire in the cavern has gone out, its shadows continue to dance on the walls…
“A.R. Penck. Rites de passage”, until 18 June. Fondation Maeght, 623 chemin des Gardettes, 06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. www.fondation-maeght.com
“À travers A.R. Penck”, until 17 June. Suzanne Tarasiève Gallery, 7 rue Pastourelle, Paris 75003. http://suzanne-tarasieve.com