From 1965-1980, gallerist Michael Werner smuggled out of Berlin in his car boot the strange prehistoric-looking paintings of stick men made by young artist Ralf Winkler. For their first West German exhibition in 1968, Winkler adopted the pseudonym AR Penck – after Ice Age geologist Albrecht Penck – partly to conceal his activities from East German authorities, partly declaring his self-division as a painter.
Is Penck aping cave paintings or playing on postmodern structures and systems? In this new overview of his vigorous, simplified 1960s works, ranging from a depiction of a rhinoceros in latex paint on masonite to “Three Erections”, a trio of black verticals within a grid of rudimentary crosses, he is expressionist, conceptualist, joker, anarchist, activist. Solo black stick figures on grainy wooden supports stand defiantly, arms raised, enlarged fingers pointing upwards in gestures of protest yet also resignation.
In “Method, to Cope”, a giant stick figure paints a red cross – the artist saving society? – while in the massed battling stick people in “Crossing East/West” and the swirling “Heaven and Hell”, Penck depicts disintegration and chaos. “Coup d’état”, a glowing flurry of fleeing stick creatures on a red ground, evokes the bombing of Dresden – Penck was born in the city in 1939 and witnessed its destruction.
Like Gerhard Richter, Penck, growing up under two authoritarian regimes – Nazism and then communism – had an ingrained nonconformism. Unlike Richter and other better-known contemporaries such as his friend George Baselitz, he stayed far longer in East Germany, developing away from western influence a faux-naïf language, at once symbolic and abstract, that addressed the experience of zero-hour Germany with utter individuality.