A. R. Penck

Neue Nationalgalerie

Since 1980, when A.R. Penck moved from East to West Germany, he has become one of the most important painters in contemporary German art. The 137 paintings, drawings, and watercolors in this retrospective impressively document his development. From its start in the early ’60s, Penck’s oeuvre as a whole has constituted a discourse, for the works coalesce into something like an overall text. 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.

Evolving in East Germany as a kind of “picture of the world,” Penck’s approach became a double-edged sword after the artist moved to the West. Previously, his fundamental position had been to find an “objective” stance in which his work opposed an ideologically one-dimensional society. However, in the pluralistic society of the West, that same approach became the problem itself. Penck’s sign language comes close to decoration, since it can respond only conditionally to the complexity of social experiences and contradictions. Penck sees this difficulty in his work exactly, and during the past ten years he has repeatedly tried to use other pictorial languages in order to break through the limits of his approach. But the roads leading to a kind of neoExpressionism, to a surreal type of image, and to an appropriation of the “trans-avant-garde” have proved to be dead ends for him. These seem to be digressions next to the main road of Penck’s “universal language,” in which the artist has succeeded in finding highly accessible pictorial formulas for contemporary consciousness. In this exhibition, works that fail and succeed are hung side by side. This experience is a strange occurrence for a viewer of a retrospective, but it emphasizes that Penck’s oeuvre is a field of questions and answers. This makes for both the intensity of this exhibition and the artist’s promise for the future.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel