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(1939 - 2017)

A. R. Penck, real name Ralf Winkler, was born in Dresden in 1939. As a child, he was left traumatised by the destruction of his city during the nights of 13 and 14 February 1945. The scenes of chaos he witnessed stayed with the artist his entire life.

In 1949, the 10-year-old Penck (then still Winkler) began producing his first paintings and had ambitions to work on sculpture. For the former discipline, he studied the basics under Jürgen Böttcher (1953-1954) with whom he would join the renegade artists’ group Erste Phalanx Nedserd, a politicised collective that shed all necessity for artistic compromise. As a result, the group members were excluded from traditional academic institutions or artistic associations, such as the Association of Visual Artists of the GDR. This forced the group members to earn their living as craftspeople. Penck, for example, would work as a draughtsman in advertising (1955-1956) before unsuccessfully applying to enrol at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts and the Berlin University of the Arts in East Berlin. The aspiring artist worked as a stoker, a postman, a margarine packer and a night watchman to make ends meet. Undeterred, Penck took part in a competition for students and assistants in the graphic arts, receiving first prize for his wood etchings (1956). This recognition marked his entry into the Dresden art scene, where he spent time with Peter Graf and Georg Baselitz, among others.

While the Berlin Wall was being erected in 1961, Penck painted his first Weltbild, experimented with self-portraits and began to open up his art to abstraction. Three years later, he took possession of his first solo workshop in Dresden, which coincided with him producing his first Systembilder.

When in 1966, the artist (then still called Winkler) became an admissible candidate for the Association of Visual Artists in the GDR, he did so under the pseudonym A. R. Penck  –  chosen in reference to the geologist specialising in the ice age Albrecht Penck  – to ensure he would be admitted. It is under this moniker that he would present his first personal exhibition, organised in Cologne at the Hake Gallery, in 1968. Hence the title of the show deutsche avantgarde 3. a.r. penck, bilder. Pseudonyms would not prevent his work from stirring up problems, however. Indeed, from 1969 onwards, issues with the Ministry for State Security would result in his artworks being confiscated and his membership of the Association of Visual Artists revoked.

A new studio inspired new developments. In 1972, Penck moved to Lindenau where he would stay until 1975. Under the name Mike Hammer, he produced gestural abstract black and white paintings. In 1975, the Berne Kunsthalle housed Penck’s first ever retrospective. Concurrently, the EP Gallery in Berlin organised his first show in East Germany, an exhibition dedicated to his earlier work. In 1980, he moved to West Germany, near Cologne, where he would become one of German neo-expressionism’s leading figures, producing highly colourful works featuring archetypal figures in monumental formats. Generally speaking, Penck’s work is made up of graphic symbols, evokes calligraphy, graffiti and cave paintings, all in order to address the themes of communication and the relationship between the individual and society.

In 1976, he received the Will Grohmann Prize from the Academy of Fine Arts in West Berlin. He became a professor at the Kunstakademie (Fine Arts Academy) Düsseldorf in 1988.

A. R. Penck passed away in 2017.

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