New York

A.R. Penck

Mary Boone Gallery and Martina Hamilton Gallery

The Boone exhibition is an overview of A. R. Penck’s development from 1963 to 1983; the Hamilton exhibition is of 15 prints, in various mediums, executed in Israel in 1983. What the exhibitions make clear is Penck’s consistency of purpose. From the beginning of his career he has been determined to reconcile what historically seem irreconcilable in Modern art: abstraction and the image of man. It would seem that abstraction, the Modern art par excellence, would be the self-evident method to disclose modern man. But in practice abstraction has tended toward estheticism—“pure art”—and the Modern artist’s understanding of modern man has, to say the least, been confused. At one extreme he has been presented as a troubled being, as in early Expressionist portraits (now and then “cured” by sex and nature, with sex one way of returning to nature). At the other he has been presented as he is shown by Penck, and earlier by Paul Klee (some people think Penck “completes” Klee): as a fairy-tale toy, erratically built of elementary cosmic gestalts, and mischievously coming alive only when the cosmos is asleep or not looking. In other words, as a homunculus, the shape of the metaphysical void and of existential meaninglessness.

Penck effects his reconciliation by making abstraction the ground on which the figure is displayed and with which it is integrated—an old device, but Penck’s figures are like blips on a radar screen. Sometimes his “cosmicized” abstract painting becomes a wall on which simplified and primitivized figures are graffitied; sometimes the figures, hyperdramatic in their structure, inhabit the space so completely that its abstractness is “naturalized” into the suggestion of a familiar environment. The former happens in Ralf, 1963 (Penck’s real first name is Ralf), and in Rationale im Dschungel (Rationale in the jungle, 1966), the latter in Grabmal meines Grossvaters (Grave of my grandfather, 1966) and Die ästhetische Provinz (The esthetic province, 1977). In the tour de force prints, the two methods of unifying cosmic ground and earthbound man (whose abstractness for Penck seems as much a tactic of self-dramatization as an articulation of a socioexistential condition) are combined. The ground becomes a kind of (grotesque) figure in its own right, and the dramatically abstract figure shows the cosmos grown monstrously human. Figure and ground, in other words, interchange. This is particularly the case in The Weak Point and The Strong Point screenprints, the Snow in Jerusalem aquatint, and the Middle East Complexities and Communication engravings/aquatints. In general, Penck achieves a sense of a turbulent yet peculiarly pointless Weltall or universe.

Penck’s work has a personal experiential aspect. At times, it seems like disguised personal narrative, with Penck’s tragicomic self-presentation (he’s the homunculus) the only thing focusing purpose. His pictures seem psychoanalytically charged, by which I do not mean that they illustrate mechanically applied psychoanalytic paradigms, but rather that they work prereflectively; they try hard to look like unreflective, dreamlike articulations. The simultaneity of seemingly incongruous image fragments, suggesting a difficult underground coherence; the sense of horror vacui, or at least of insurmountable clutter; and the general aura of always being on the verge of chaos—all suggest an “impossible,” expressionistic cohesiveness understandable in terms of the psychoanalysis of narcissism. Indeed, images derivative of an infantile self-image abound, their primordiality confirmed by their cave-painting look—the look of indiscreet doodles, their purpose ill defined. In a kind of visual free association the images become at times capable of being placed in a social context, but they remain undifferentiated. Indeed, the startling thing about Penck’s best pictures is that for all the conflict they sometimes articulate, the free-associational handling makes the “war” between the figures comic—far from relentless. All the figures blend in a Dionysian way.

Penck, then, is uncertain about the contents of “the esthetic province.” Are they human or abstract, or an abstract fantasy of the human, or a human fantasy of the abstract? He does seem to believe in an inherently abstract (artistic, artificial) intelligence, and equally intensely in the integrity of the human before all else. As long as the tension between abstraction and human association remains, Penck’s work will be compelling. However, in the “Expedition to the Holy-land” prints, Penck seems determined to obliterate the tension, solving the dilemma of Modern art by orgiastically marrying the opposites. Free association has almost gotten out of hand, obscuring nervous irritability rather than angst. Penck’s responsiveness seems on the verge of being stylized. One really hopes he doesn’t become an old master—playing in esthetic earnestness with his dream fragments rather than toying with them lightly, libidinously. The prints are really too drily beautiful, for all the wetness of their parts. However, on second glance they dissolve into contending symmetries, or rather awkwardly self-balancing asymmetries, suggesting the “political” character of free association itself. The Holy Land comes to have very profane possibilities of self-expression; the beauty of the place is as precarious as the figure-holism of Penck’s less placeable life-worlds.

Donald Kuspit