A.R. Penck rose to fame in the early 1980s in New York with his vibrant block-colour paintings, drawings and sculptures. Consisting of simplified figures and symbols that read as their own language, Penck’s practice was all about abstracting, or transforming, reality.
Born Ralf Winkler, he adopted his moniker from geologist Albrecht Penckin in 1968 in order to evade East German authorities. His work largely commented on Germany’s post-war condition through “Standart”, an invented alphabet he created and formed into abstract compositions with naïve techniques akin to Outsider art or cave painting. Parallels have been drawn retrospectively to the likes of Keith Haring, but Penck’s inspiration derived from self-taught art historical sources, including prehistoric art and German Expressionism, which he favoured for their minimalist figuration and stark silhouettes, as well as jazz music, which can easily be read in his dynamic compositions.
The straightforwardness of his artistry strikes a universal nerve. It is accessible and identifiable to the masses as addressing trauma, sadness and loss, as well as solidarity and friendship. Penck initially documented his experience of a divided Germany, he was not permitted to publicly exhibit between 1963-72, instead smuggling artworks outside of the city until he was expelled from Eastern Germany in 1980 and began working from Cologne.
Exhibiting in spaces such as Kunsthalle Bern, documenta and the Venice Biennale, this period in his practice is marked by less colourful and often less compositionally dense works. While he was awarded several prizes in Europe (Will Grohmann Prize of the Academy of Arts in 1975, Rembrandt Prize by the Goethe Foundation in 1981 and Aachen Artist’s Prize in 1985), his early works proved less market friendly in the USA, which preferred the more colourful works exhibited by Sonnabend Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery (both New York) that catapulted him into the spotlight. It was his departure from Eastern Germany, the artist would later say, that allowed him to leave it all behind and marked the shift towards more chromatically vivid pieces.
Despite a relative decline in his popularity amongst audience in the decades following the 1980s, Penck’s practice still rings true. “At the core of Penck’s art is a yearning for a universal human sign-language. The ‘system paintings,’ as the artist calls them, transmit signals and information concerning social as well as historical conditions,” wrote Wolfgang Faust in the October 1988 issue of Artforum. “The goal of these works, however, is not a mere depiction of reality; instead Penck aims to transform the world through them.”