A. R. Penck (1939–2017)

German Neo-Expressionist A.R. Penck, best known for his paintings and sculptures depicting simplified symbols and figures, has died in Zürich at the age of seventy-seven, the German news agency dpa reports.

Born Ralf Winkler in 1939, the artist adopted the pseudonym of geologist Albrecht Penckin in 1968 to evade the East German authorities. That same year, Michael Werner organized the self-taught artist’s first show at Galerie Hake in Cologne. Previously, he had unsuccessfully applied to art schools in Dresden and East Berlin and was not allowed to publicly exhibit his works while living in East Berlin from 1963 to 1972, forcing him to smuggle pieces out of the city. He was expelled from the territory in 1980 and after settling in Cologne forged close friendships with fellow Neo-Expressionist artists Jörg Immendorff and Markus Lüpertz.

Penck has been included in many major exhibitions over the years. From 1975 to 1976, the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland held a retrospective of the artist’s work; in 1972, 1977, 1982, and 1992 he was featured in Documenta in Kassel; and in 1984 he exhibited at the Forty-First Venice Biennale. In 1975, he received the Will Grohmann Prize of the Academy of Arts in West Berlin. In 1981, he was awarded the Rembrandt Prize by the Goethe Foundation in Basel, and in 1985, he won the the city of Aachen’s Artist’s Prize. He became a professor at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf in 1989, where he taught for many years.

In the October 1988 issue of Artforum, Wolfgang Faust wrote, “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. The goal of these works, however, is not a mere depiction of reality; instead Penck aims to transform the world through them. To this end, he has developed a pictorial language consisting of simple signs. He shows ‘little line men’ and pictorial symbols arranged in highly readable scenes and referring to war, oppression, and dependency, but also to love, friendship, and solidarity.”

His paintings are currently on view in a solo show at Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul, France.