To avoid attracting the attention of the Stasi, he went by various pseudonyms, including Mike Hammer, Mickey Spilane – or simply Y. As early as 1970, Penck had his first solo show at Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld. At home in the GDR, however, he had to exhibit privately in the houses of friends.
The fact that the Academy of Arts in West Berlin awarded him the 1975 Will Grohmann Prize and that he joined the protests against Biermann’s expatriation the following year did not improve his position either. It is therefore certain that the Stasi were behind the 1979 break-in at Penck’s studio, in which numerous paintings were stolen and destroyed.
Spat out by the East, not yet devoured by the West
It was the Cologne gallerist Wolfgang Werner who promoted Penck’s work after he was expelled from the GDR. Penck came into contact with fellow painters Jörg Immendorf, Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz. However, he continued to work in his own unique fashion which tended to be anticyclical. And not only in the East, where he opposed the official approach to art; he also did exactly what he pleased in the West. In the mid-1980s, photography and video art were in vogue.
But Penck preferred to carve totem-like wooden sculptures. He wrote poems and essays – and he made music. Painting alone was never enough to exhaust his talents. “The East spat me out, and the West hasn’t yet devoured me,” is a line from one of the poems he wrote in 1982.
Penck did not always feel comfortable in the West. He saw himself as a nomad and did not stay long in Cologne. In the same year, he moved into a studio in Paris, before going to London in 1983. He returned to West Germany in 1988 to take up a professorship at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf.
For a long time, he was unable to shake off the label of dissident in the West. As late as 1992, when his final Dresden show opened, a journalist asked him whether he would ever have made it into the “charts of the international art market” without this status.