Die falsche Vorstellung von Ordnung

A. R. Penck

In 1979, the Stasi entered Ralf Winkler’s Dresden studio and trashed the place. It was the culmination of a harassment campaign against the artist, who found fame under the pseudonym AR Penck, for refusing to make social-realist propaganda.

Instead, his paintings featured oft-repeated hieroglyphs, odd symbols and signs, seemingly child-like naive scrawls and simple stick men (often with outsized penises). The authorities were right to be suspicious of this new painterly style: Penck sought the construction of a new language, one that mixed the linguistic and pictorial, that was both “universal” and “democratic”. It was a wish born of the trauma of the second world war, particularly witnessing the destruction of Dresden as a child, and the ensuing dystopia of the German Democratic Republic.

Penck’s visual language, which he termed “standart” is, on the surface at least, one that could be mastered by anyone. There is a “building block system”, as he once said; a glossary of motifs to be picked out and played with on a whim. In fact, few would bring the rhythm and lyricism that Penck, a jazz fan, brought to the canvas. With their profusion of wide eyes, humanoid forms, beasts and birds, his paintings are suggestive of the real world, but they also lean on theories of abstraction, in which noughts, crosses and other symbols flirt across a work’s surface with a pride in pure painterly gesture.

Escaping his censors, Penck smuggled paintings to the west with the help of Cologne gallerist Michael Werner. Most accounts note it was the Stasi raid that catalysed his defection in 1980 but, more likely, the East Berlin regime sold the artist to their counterparts across the wall as part of the lucrative and highly secret Häftlingsfreikauf programme, which allowed the GDR to bring in much-needed foreign currency and rid itself of intellectual troublemakers. Either way, for Penck, it came as a relief.

Settling in Cologne, the artist hung out with Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke, a gang the press dubbed the Neue Wilde – the Young Savages. More formally, throughout the 1980s these artists developed neo-expressionism between them, a form of painting characterised by its rough emotional pull. While Penck’s importance to this new genre was confirmed by his appearance in key survey shows, Zeitgeist at the Gropius Bau, Berlin, in 1982, and New Art at the Tate, London, a year later, the artist’s source material reveals a more nuanced set of references.

The science fiction Penck read as a child while the RAF carpet-bombed Dresden remained an enduring influence, as did his interests in genetics, ecology, systems theory and cybernetics. With his work, Penck sought to understand how people, objects and ideas rubbed up against each other, how thoughts could be expressed beyond words and how a path out of the inherent conflict of the world might be mapped.

Text abridged from a review in The Guardian by Oliver Basciano, 30th December 2021.

A.R. Penck (1939-2017)
Die falsche Vorstellung von Ordnung
The wrong idea of order
Polyester resin on canvas
78 ¾ x 118 in : 200.0 x 300.0 cm
Framed Size
80 ½ x 119 ½ x 1 ½ in : 204 x 304 x 4 cm
Signed lower right
Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne (RP361)
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Private collection
‘A.R. Penck: Paintings 1974-1990’, White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, 9 Mar-14 Apr 2022
A.R. Penck: Paintings 1974-1990, exh. cat., White Cube, London, 2022, p.75 (illus.)

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by Ulf Jensen
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