Simply Radical A. R. Penck retrospective

I n the GDR, the artist A. R. Penck was first ignored, then persecuted and eventually kicked out of the country. In 2019, he would have been 80 years old. Now his former home town of Dresden is honouring him with a major retrospective

25. September 2019

Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that bête noire of the Stasi, A. R. Penck returned to the East, bearded and wearing a floppy hat and crumpled jeans, a striped T-shirt stretched over his mighty girth. It was his first solo exhibition in Dresden, the city where he had lived until he was stripped of his citizenship in 1980 and deported to the West.

The relationship with his native city was always complicated. They never allowed him to be an artist there, and he was forced to exhibit his paintings in secret. With his exhibition in 1992, he returned “not as the all-conquering hero, but equally not as a prodigal son”. At least, that’s what the artist wrote in the catalogue preface. The title he gave to the exhibition was ‘Analysis of a Situation’. By which he meant his own situation at that time. He deliberately chose not to exhibit the works from the 1960s and 1970s which got him into such trouble in the GDR – and which made his reputation in the West.

Instead, he showed unknown works which he had created during the previous twelve months. “Good for him,” said Werner Schmidt, who had become Director General of the Dresden State Art Collections in 1989. Because by doing so, Penck was expressing confidence in himself as an artist without the need to define himself exclusively as a dissident.

The artist, who died last year, would have turned 80 in October 2019. So it is an appropriate anniversary on which to stage the retrospective ‘Ich aber komme aus Dresden (check it out man, check it out)’ [English: I am from Dresden though (check it out man, check it out)]. It will be the first ever comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work.

A.R. Penck: Ich überlege, vor 1971, Holzschnitt, 55,2 x 79 cm (Blatt), Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Kupferstich-Kabinett,


Penck, whose real name was Ralf Winkler, always wanted to be an artist. He dropped out of secondary school, preferring to attend drawing classes given by Jürgen Böttcher, a painter and filmmaker who was only eight years his senior. There he met the ‘three Peters’. Together with Peter Makolies, Peter Graf and Peter Herrmann, he founded the Dresden-based group of artists ‘Erste Phalanx Nedserd’ – and he did this at the preco­cious age of 14. They saw themselves as continuing the militant tradition of the Phalanx, a group founded in 1901 by Wassily Kandinsky. ‘Nedserd’ is Dresden, spelled backwards.


An explosive name

They were interested in classical modernism, revered Picasso and rebelled against Socialist Realism as endorsed by the state. The Verband der Bildenden Künstler (GDR Association of Visual Artists) spurned them, and they also failed to gain admission to the Academy of Fine Arts. Instead, they found employment as factory workers or tradesmen. After completing an apprenticeship as a commercial artist in 1955/56, Penck went on to work as a stoker, amateur actor, roofer, night watchman and postman. He first began signing his works as A. R. Penck in 1968, a sort of homage to the Ice Age researcher and geologist Albrecht Penck (1858–1945). The name might also have appealed to him because it sounds a bit like the explosive ‘Peng!’ in German comic magazines. The ‘R’ stands for Ralf, his own first name.

A.R. Penck: Large World Picture, 1965, Oil on hardboard panel, 180 x 260 cm, Loan Ludwig Foundation, 1986, ML 01432 Museum Ludwig, Cologne


Somewhere between cave paintings and pop art

Penck was already a star in the West long before his expatriation. The ‘Alter Wilder’ (enfant terrible) of the GDR is considered to be the father of the ‘Neue Wilde’ (Wild Style or New Image Painting) that rose to prominence in West Germany in the early 1980s. Back in 1968, Penck came up with the concept of the ‘Standart-Bild’ (i.e. ‘standard picture’) which has typified his work ever since. The term refers to the recurrence of symbols and abbreviations. “Every Standart-Bild is capable of being reimagined and reproduced to become the property of each individual,”­­ he wrote in 1970.

They were busy images brimming with content and having an archaic quality, populated with faceless stick figures and snarling dogs, a cross between cave painting and pop art in which suns, crucifixes, skulls and spears appear to be flying around. These abbreviations could indeed be read as symbols of his existential struggle in the GDR.

But above all, his pictures touched the emotions. They had a spontaneous feel, testifying to sexuality, fears and emotions. Many would like to see in them an emotional counterpoint to the overly intellectual Western art of the 1970s.


A.R. Penck: Visuelles Denken - Techniken des Verstehens, 1972/73, Skizzenbuch (Durchschreibebuch mit Einband und 99 teils linierten Blättern), Tusche, Tinte, Aquarellfarbe, Faserstifte, 29,5 x 20,7 cm, Städtische Galerie Dresden – Kunstsammlung, Museen der Stadt Dresden


Across the border in gift-wrap paper

The figures of Matisse, reduced to serpentine lines, can be seen in his works as well as the graffiti style of the much younger American painters Keith Haring (1958–1990) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), whose formulaic imagery he more or less anticipated.

His work was displayed at the quinquennial Documenta no fewer than three times. And his pictures were also expensive in the West. It must have been deeply irritating for the guardians of art theory in the GDR when this self-taught genius, who they had been unable to see anything worthwhile in, was invited to Documenta 5 at Kassel in 1972. They weren’t going to let him out of the East for that.

On 12th August 1961, one day before the Berlin Wall went up, he visited his friend Georg Baselitz in West Berlin. “Stay here!” Baselitz tried to persuade him. But Penck wanted to leave – he was afraid that they would not let him return to his home, even though he was not allowed to exhibit in the East.

From 1969 onwards, the Stasi had him under surveillance. But the well-connected artist always found ways to get his work across the border. He smuggled them to West German gallery owners disguised as gifts.

A.R. Penck: Ohne Titel (Ende im Osten/Duisburg), 1979/80, Öl auf Nessel, 130 × 175 cm, MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Sammlung Ströher

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.


A.R. Penck in his studio, Gostritzer Strasse 92, Dresden, between 1977 and 1980

“We have to think of Penck in wider terms,” says Mathias Wagner, one of the curators of the retrospective ‘Ich aber komme aus Dresden (check it out man, check it out)’. “He was much more than just the dissident. His oeuvre is far too varied for that. He was a dissenter who upset the authorities, an artistic outsider in the East.”

The exhibition is dedicated to the unknown Penck. Many of these works have never been exhibited in Dresden. In addition to paint­ings and sculptures, the focus is on the artist’s publications and sketchbooks. His varied activities as a musician are presented, as well as some of his Super 8 films. “The books, films and music were considered rather as marginal phenomena,” adds co-curator Pirkko Rathgeber. “They allow us to recognise the complexity of a work that transcends genre and media boundaries in the same way that art is distinct from science.”

Penck’s time in Dresden will now also play a central role for the first time.


A.R. Penck: „Ich aber komme aus Dresden (check it out man, check it out).”

Albertinum, 5.10.2019 – 12.1. 2020

At the same time to the show at the Albertinum the Städtische Galerie Dresden shows the exhibition
A.R. Penck „Übermalungen 1979“ – Rekonstruktion einer Ausstellung (3.10.2019—5.1.2020) Projektraum Neue Galerie, Städtische Galerie Dresden.

Penck Hotel Dresden: Over 700 original works by the Artist A.R. Penck can be admired at different locations throughout the hotel,
including the 
more than 6-metre-tall Standart T(x) bronze sculpture on the roof.