I hadn’t guessed that AR Penck was quite such a hero in his hometown. It hadn’t even occurred to me when I was booked into Dresden’s Penck Hotel that the coincidence of names was anything more than that, a coincidence— but no, I found the lobby filled with marvellous canvases by the artist, named Ralf Winkler by his parents, a 1939 son of the city who died in 2017. The lobby paintings were, some of them, of grandiose scale; prints decorated the hotel’s bedrooms. Why doesn’t the capital of the state of Saxony have a Gerhard Richter Hotel, too? Well, for one thing, his works are probably too expensive even for hoteliers to buy in any quantity. But I suspect that there’s also something about Penck’s pictographic idiom that gives his work more immediate appeal, not unlike that of artists more than a generation younger such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And in Dresden, it probably counts that whereas Richter left the DDR in 1961, with little trace of his time in Dresden, Penck remained there until 1980. Although he began exhibiting in the West as early as 1968, he was an active presence on Dresden’s cultural—or rather, countercultural—scene for decades. This exhibition, “A.R. Penck: ‘Ich aber komme aus Dresden (check it out man, check it out),” explored the artist’s multivalent work up through 1980 in rewarding detail, showcasing, along with his paintings, his books, records and super-8 films (made in collaboration with Wolfgang Opitz).
As a young artist, Penck (then still Winkler) was a marginal figure. Rejected by the Dresden and Berlin academies, he was essentially an autodidact, despite some training at an adult education centre. But he was far from isolated, and his self-education was conducted collectively; from the beginning, Penck was an inveterate collaborator, a great joiner and initiator of groups, among them Lücke (the word means “gap” or “lacuna”), whose members painted collectively on Monday afternoons with the aim, we are told, of “maximal communication” through means of painting, which seems to have been understood in a rather anarchic manner: “Only the sequence was determined among the group, everything was permitted while painting and no one had veto power. The painting process unfolded in togetherness, as well as in antagonism.” And despite Penck’s non-recognition by official art organizations, he was not entirely without support from within them: it is surprising to learn that in the Dresden Kupferschnitt- Kabinett’s collection of no less than 550 of Penck’s works on paper, “the majority,” according to a wall label, “had already entered into the cabinet’s collection during the GDR times, even though the artist’s works were not permitted to be officially purchased with the museum’s acquisition fund.”
Early on, Penck and his friends were keen to study art history— Rembrandt was a favourite—as well as the great contemporaries, such as Picasso, as early studies show. But when he began to construct his own pictorial system in the early 1960s, none of this would matter much. It looks as if he is trying to build his art from scratch—not exactly from zero but in any case from a point that conceptually precedes the division within the realm of mark making between picturing and writing. This is not the primitivism it might appear to be, for it is not rooted in the belief that some older culture had produced a purer or more powerful set of forms. Penck’s attitude was actually closer to futurism, reflecting a belief that a truly universal picture language had yet to be invented. “I wanted to make paintings that functioned as signals,” Penck explained. He studied cybernetics, reading books by the likes of the management theorist Stafford Beer and the mathematician Louis Couffignal; his understanding of their ideas about how to represent the communicational functioning of complex systems, such as human societies, is reflected in his diagrammatic imagery. Certainly, the individual stands at the heart of Penck’s symbolic universe, but this stick figure is an individual without individuality, without features, and whose typical open-handed gesture seems to signal communication and receptivity at the same time. “I receive signals and send signals,” Penck said. “In between is me”—essentially, a node.
By 1973, Penck had come to realize that his idea of a universal pictorial communication system was untenable; in a sense, he was left with a basic vocabulary for painting conceived in a more traditional sense as a medium of personal expression. Within a few years he also became disillusioned with the idea that socialism, as he’d experienced it in East Germany, could be reformed. Eventually, a move west became inevitable. But this comprehensive overview of Penck’s activity in Dresden under the DDR makes possible a deeper appreciation of the more familiar, and in many ways more focused, work he would produce from 1980 until his death, underlining its essentially socio-political concerns, however abstractly articulated—its idealism, its optimism, its faith in the possibility of mutual understanding. That much of the time I don’t think I actually understand what Penck wanted to communicate in any specific work, except in terms of its visual impact, which is often considerable, only renders that faith of his all the more poignant. In the end, I see this art as the plea of a born misfit for the construction of the society that would finally accommodate him. So much the worse for us if that desired home never appeared but only a hotel we can pass through once in a while. ❚
“A.R. Penck: Ich aber komme aus Dresden (check it out man, check it out)” was exhibited at the Albertinum, Dresden, from October 5, 2019, to January 1, 2020.
Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation. His new book is The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting (Berlin: Sternberg Press).