This is the first comprehensive exhibition in London of Penck’s rarely seen early works. Featuring important paintings and sculptures created in Dresden in the 1960s and early 1970s, the exhibition presents unique insights into the artist’s distinctive style and sensibility.
A.R. Penck’s mature style, characterised by brusquely painted signs and symbols rendered with an intense graphic impact, is by now recognisable to anyone familiar with the art that emerged in Europe during the post-war period. Penck’s reductive pictorial vocabulary and determinedly unfussy painterly style have made it all too easy for unsympathetic viewers to dismiss the artist as primitive or neo-expressionist. The exhibition at Michael Werner, focused entirely on important early paintings and the artist’s first sculptures, seeks to redress this by highlighting the surprising formal and conceptual origins of Penck’s oeuvre.
From the outset of his career Penck has pursued an intense interest in systems, whether political, informational or interpersonal, and the forces that govern them. His childhood interest in science fiction encouraged a deeper reading into the workings and implications of information theories and cybernetics. Penck’s prolific output during the 1960s and 1970s was driven primarily by his desire to create a universal pictorial system that could address the entire range of social and political issues facing modern man. This grand ambition ultimately led to the development of Penck’s Standart paintings and sculptures, a series for which the artist is best known.
Many of the works on view are modest in size, painted on board or cotton fabric or constructed from cardboard and paper. These are the only materials that would have been available to any self-taught artist working outside of the East German academic system. In these works one finds the beginnings of Penck’s highly personalised vocabulary: simple dots, lines and abstract forms are repeated throughout the works, as well as the stick figures that would appear in subsequent works for years to come. Despite their apparent humility, these works are charged with great vitality and an urgent sense of purpose, born of the artist’s need for communication over mere depiction.