New York

A.R. Penck

Nolan/Eckman Gallery

This remarkable miniretrospective of A.R. Penck’s drawings creates the impression that he is a brooding, highly subjective artist, using his art to try to make sense of his personal experience. Though Penck’s famous Standart emblem—a generally glyphic, loosely primitive stick figure, supposedly representative of modern man at his most socially naked and vulnerable—makes an appearance in the works in this show, he is surrounded by haunting images. His Übergang_ (crossing-over) imagery, which articulates the danger he felt while living in East Germany and the anxiety he experienced upon leaving for West Germany, makes this explicit: the figure that represents Penck is shattered into fragments so small as to be barely recognizable as parts of a whole.

Again and again Penck portrays, if not himself, then people with whom he was deeply involved: Georg Baselitz in Studie zum G.B. (study for G.B.: 1980), and a former girlfriend, now deceased, in Jutta, 1976. Suggestive of Penck’s ambivalence about her, the half-dark, half-light image of her head and hair in this complex drawing is obsessively repeated in an increasingly erratic, obscure way—in general his imagery is mnemonic and anecdotal—as though Penck were trying to recall her appearance. The piece bespeaks an effort to understand the character of his relationship with her, as is revealed in the vignette in which he (a raving figure on his knees, outlined in black) petitions her (a blackened silhouette). Both these “in memoriam” drawings—the former in charcoal and oilstick, the latter a gouache—indicate how rooted in object relations Penck’s drawings are, and the degree to which they are a kind of restless meditation on his life, an externalization of his feelings, even when they become more like abstract writing than speech acts. Thus, in a 1988 acrylic drawing, the quasi-cabalistic pictorial script can be understood as a private code for Penck’s emotions. These emotive signs seem to freely associate, but their cumulative intensity suggests a passion recollected in abstract tranquillity. For Penck’s abstraction hardly serves the repressive, distancing function it is supposed to but, rather, seems to make for a more direct instinctive release. In reducing both objects and himself to signs, Penck unexpectedly liberates the feelings associated with them.

It is as if Penck’s drawings were abreactions that do not quite work, which is why they must be repeated with compulsive rapidity. What subtends the haunting figures is never purged, not even when they become abstract signs. Indeed, the raised arms of the Standart figure suggest it is apotropaic—that Penck is simultaneously at odds with himself and warding off unmanageable others.

And yet, of course, art itself is a kind of mastery of the apotropaic, which Penck broadly achieves through the conceptual asymmetry of his imagery—the occult balance he creates from the “system” of expressive equivalences he establishes. Nowhere is this standard (but nonetheless difficult) practice of manipulating ostensibly incommensurate objects into a poetic unconscious—relationship more evident than in a marvellous childlike, fairy-tale work, Black Cross, White Cross, Yellow Ball, #9, 1976, in which a black spider, a white eagle’s head, a red lion, and a transparent coffee grinder play off each other. Penck uses metonymic means to imply their metaphoric similarity—expressive equivalence—without spelling it out, indeed, without even suggesting that it “works.” thus, they become in effect “parallel lines” converging and corresponding in the infinite of the unconscious. Emotionally one in the theater of the unconscious, they are enigmatic in the here and now of consciousness.

Donald Kuspit