The early 1980s was a very exciting time for contemporary art. It saw the emergence, more or less at the same time and more or less in the same place, of a host of truly amazing artists. Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jőrg Immendorff, Markus Lűpertz and many more. They tended to congregate around Cologne and Dűsseldorf and their guru was Joseph Beuys who taught at the art school in the latter. The movement, which became known as Die Junge Wilden and exhibited under the banner of Zeitgeist, took the art world by storm and exhibitions were held in major museums around the world.
Ralf Winkler, who worked under the name of, among others, A R Penck was part of the movement and this major retrospective, covering a period of sixty years, presents us with a comprehensive insight into the man and his work. Born in Dresden in 1939 he grew up in the DDR and was often the target of the dreaded GDR, the Ministry of State Security.
Although painting from his teens, Penck had no formal art training and worked in a variety of jobs until establishing himself as a fully-fledged painter in the late 1960s. After having met Immendorff he moved to the Cologne area in the West and became a significant member of the movement.
The first works in this exhibition date from his teenage year and, if one was being polite, one would say they were influenced by Picasso. If one was less charitable, one would say copies. But that’s normal.
His almost trade-mark matchstick men and wild beasts were in evidence throughout the exhibition but there seemed to be an inconsistency. Many of the works I really liked. There were some magnificent paintings like the Immendorff influenced The Aesthetic Provinces of 1977 and the huge, three meter square How It Works from 1989. There were a couple of series of drawings which were real quality – one a dozen or studies of dandelions and another on trees. How It Works had strange echoes of the George Stubbs 1783 painting of Lion Attacking a Horse which we had seen an hour before, across town at the Mauritshuis.
The inconsistency that I felt was twofold. Firstly, although one could see most of the paintings were executed and finished at great speed, I had the feeling that some of them, and I’m talking about finished paintings, not studies, were done in about ten minutes and had very little merit. I really got the impression that he had just sloshed some paint on a canvas, knowing he could get away with it.
The other thing that bothered me, and why I had never been a particular fan of Penck, was that he had no recognizable “style”, there is often nothing to identify the work as his. Unlike Immendorff, Baselitz, Kiefer et al whose work is so strong you recognize it immediately, that is often not the case with Penck.
Despite my reservations this is an important retrospective of an artist who was at the very heart of one of the most important and influential art movements of the last century. Michael Hasted 4th March 2020
The exhibition continues until 27th September 2020