New York

A. R. Penck

Leo Koenig Inc. | 541 West 23rd

A. R. Penck was born in Dresden in 1939 and lived there until 1980, when he emigrated to the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain. As a young man, in an environment in which any art outside the socialist realist mold was liable to be dubbed subversive, he made paintings whose abstract imagery was meant to render political and existential realities legible. In 1968, he coined the term Standart to denote “a method of making information products,” as he put it in a 1971 statement. Standart was “a production of the brain, made with the purpose of achieving a total perception of its visual information content, and thus affording the possibility of imitation. . . . Art thus acquires an explicitly rational function.” This makes him sound more like a GDR scientist than the proto–Neue Wilde primitivist that, in the ’80s, he was often perceived to be. His sensibility actually combines elements of both, as a trio of shows this past spring and summer (solos at Mitchell-Innes & Nash and Leo Koenig, Inc., and Gladstone Gallery’s group exhibition “Dereconstruction,” where Penck showed a suite of sculptures) made apparent.

The Koenig show, with just seven paintings, was a lucid précis of his oeuvre. The earliest work in the exhibition was a medium-size untitled 1966 oil painting on a wool blanket depicting a male figure whose arms grow straight from his cartoonishly round head. Painted with a minimum of finesse in sickly pinkish tones, the work is an unusually abject and naturalistic rendering of a motif that had become standard for Penck—the abstracted male figure, a symbol of individual autonomy, but of vulnerability as well. In the second-oldest work in the show, Untitled (Standart), 1970, there’s been a radical change—the painting is much larger, and although the male figure appears again, now he’s merely an outline traced in black jots, floating against a gunmetal-gray background: flesh reduced to bare schematics. In the four years between the creation of these two paintings, Penck’s vision of Standart, which he thought of as a “weapon” in the face of the upheavals and crackdowns that roiled the Eastern Bloc in the late ’60s, had crystallized. Two other works from the ’70s show Penck alternately refining his evolving pictorial system (as in the oversize Nachtgeistertotenvogeltanz [Night Ghost Death Bird Dance], 1971) and departing from it: Der Wahnsinn der Vergangenheit ist Irreparabel (The Madness of the Past Is Irreparable), 1977, is an almost psychotically busy picture of a woman in bed, the space around her a wild montage of imagery; the work suggests a despairing slide back toward naturalism, even as that very despair creates a frenzied dynamism.

Finally, in three monumental works from the ’80s—all flat, teeming arrays of graphic and glyphic forms at various scales—Penck’s style reaches a kind of apotheosis. The black-on-white Der Dämon, 1982, features a menacing, winged humanoid figure, a totem pole, stick figures, a dancing woman, a bird, a triangle, circles, and squares. The central element of Am Fluss (Hypothesis 1), 1982, also black and white (though here the black is the ground), is a figure whose curves are echoed by the serpentine forms around it. And in TSKrie VI, 1984, bright, unmixed color has been added to the stark black and white, and the composition is a matrix of concentric circles, dabs of paint, letters, arrows, and female figures. There is no ground at all, just a thicket of marks that draw the eye in and send the gaze off on ever-branching paths. Penck may never have fully achieved his early goal, which was to come up with a kind of visual Esperanto, but in his search for a universal pictorial language, he created paintings that have an energy that needs no translation.

Elizabeth Schambelan