AR Penck has been on show pretty frequently in London over recent years: I enjoyed an intimate collection of his paintings and sculpture at Michael Werner last November, and now some large canvases are at the large White Cube gallery in Mayfair. His popularity isn’t surprising. Penck, who died in 2017, was a loveable artist, with his large canvases of hieroglyph-like figures and symbols.
The large scale of the White Cube gallery gives his works some room to breathe. They’re vibrant pieces, taken mainly from a tumultuous decade in Penck’s life. A jazz musician and a dissident, the artist moved from communist East Germany to the west in the early 80s, then to London in 1982.
Penck is often associated by critics with his countryman Georg Baselitz (whose portrait of Penck featured prominently in his recent Centre Pompidou retrospective). There’s definitely some overlap in the pair’s preference for large blocky characters in flat colour fields. Another obvious comparison is Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom Penck met in New York, in the canvases’ busy symbology, their repetitive use of motifs, their buzzy atmosphere.
On the far wall, l-r: Standart–West KR–8, Standart–West KR4 (both 1982)
Penck’s version of Basquiat’s instantly-recognisable three-pointed crown? An everyman stick figure with a triangular head, who appears again and again at White Cube. The show notes suggest Penck was inspired both by hieroglyphs and the graffiti on the Berlin Wall when he came up with his overall aesthetic, which he called Standart.
This blunt pun even makes immediate sense to non German speakers like me. Standard art - systematic art, repeated again and again, using a tight lexical arsenal of symbols and motifs.
That’s not to suggest a lack of emotion, though. The two standout works on show at White Cube are from the Standart-West series. Painted the year of Penck’s move to the UK, these large canvases practically vibrate with dread. The triangular-headed everyman are mussed and blurred, as if viewed through a blurry window, or during an earthquake.
Get closer, and you get a sense of the great violence with which the black paint was splattered and gouged into the canvases by the uprooted artist. In this pair of works, he was shaking up the system.
AR Penck: Paintings 1974-1990 is at White Cube (London). 09 March - 14 April 2022