A.R. Penck was born into the Germany of World War II, and grew up in East German isolation and poverty. As an artist, he had no formal training, and very little contact with the artistic products of his contemporaries in the West. But in the 1980s, in the mad burst of interest in Germany before and after the fall of the wall, he rose to popularity in the fad of German Neo-Expression.
But of the artist before that rise?
“A.R. Penck: Early Works” is as much study as exhibition. Displayed in the Michael Werner Gallery in Manhattan is a collection of paintings and sculptures by the self-taught Penck, from the ’60s and ’70s.
His early paintings are cartoonish, almost cave-art-like in their simple symbolism. In an untitled 1966 painting, simple stick figures act out a comic about (apparently) digestion and voyeurism, and the consequences of both.
In “Primitive Computer” (1968) he seems to have moved forward in time, drawing a grid that appears to be a hybrid of simple computers and hieroglyphics. Other paintings seem to show human figures endlessly budding off one another, or teaching one another letters. They somehow seem grim, despite the childish appearance of his techniques.
In the 70s, Penck moved to sculpture, but lost none of his primitive feel. He used cardboard and tape, wire and glass bottles, string and foil. He called his style Standart, playing off of the standard materials in common across so much of modern life. (A note: Penck devotees do not appreciate it if you compare his ’73 sculpture “Standart-Modell” to a box cut up for your house-cat to play in, no matter how much it looks exactly like a box cut up for your house-cat to play in.)
The Michael Werner Gallery is in the Upper East Side, New York, and is open free to the public on weekdays, 10 to 6.