Sunday, October 4th, 2009

A.R. Penck: New System Paintings at Michael Werner

September 10 to October 24, 2009
4 East 77th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues,
New York City, 212 988-1623

installation shots of the exhibition under review.
installation shots of the exhibition under review.

Sculptor, printmaker, and painter A.R. Penck was born in Dresden, East Germany, in 1939. Developing his schematic, pictographic paintings in the 1960s, Penck worked out a style that extended a series of signs and signals congruent with his interests in math, cybernetics, and behavioral theories. In the 1980s the artist enjoyed considerable recognition, becoming known as one of the most interesting practitioners of the then-new figuration alongside well-known figures as Jorge Immendorf and Georg Baselitz. As a promulgator of esthetic systems, in which a black-and-white imagery of recognizable things correlated with a larger, overall scheme, Penck made paintings that looked like the writings and sketches of an indigenous culture, albeit one with the ability to see into the future. Earlier work was rather abrupt and discontinuous in its presentation of his totemic pictorials, but as this show indicates, Penck has cleared out a lot of the randomness of his art, working up large patterns that on closer inspection reveal male figures, symbolic objects such as isolated eyes, and even crocodiles and skulls, which add a touch of the macabre to his highly articulated compositions.

The four 2007 works from the “System Paintings” series are large black-and-white acrylic works on canvas; all of them have been painted from edge to edge with male stick figures and abstract symbols whose lexicon seems to have come from a language we as viewers do not know. The paintings’ busy patterns suggest a hieroglyphics describing social interactions that are more anthropological than they are esthetically realized. Saving the imagery from what we might call barbarous chaos is Penck’s highly skilled orientation and spacing of the visual components of an individual work. As a result, even if we cannot read the pictographs as narration, we can enjoy them as suggestions and interpretations of a greater social—and visual–cohesiveness than they might at first seem to have. As viewers, then, the experience of System Painting—New Old World, with its central white figure topped by an eye and supported beneath by another figure, shows us how much can be communicated when both recognizable images and abstract symbols vie for our attention. In the lower-left corner, a figure seems to be holding a gun over a fire: the mixture of primitivity and sophistication shows us that, as Penck puts it in his title, both the new and the old can coexist in relations that might otherwise seem arbitrary in a less organized visual field.

In System Painting—Last one looks at male figures painted black, each with a visible phallus, which organize the painting’s system. In the case of this particular work, letters catch our attention along with more symbolic forms that fill the picture’s dimensions. In a nice if obvious nod to the memento mori, Penck includes two skulls in the lower-left corner of Last; off to the right is a figure holding a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. In the center a figure seems to be standing on some sort of cycle, whose wheels are set next to the skulls. Does the world Last in the title suggest something like a last judgment, a final moment in human history? It is hard to say, but it makes the viewer feel that Penck has his own symbolism very much in mind when he paints—we may, or may not, be correct in intuiting its meaning. In two smaller works, again from 2007, we see Penck working with simpler shapes, creating an even-handed equilibrium using abstraction. In fact, one of the works is called Balance; its structure consists of a circle, a pentagon, and a triangle, as well as smaller, open circles and exclamation points right-side up and upside down. An “x” balances stands next to what looks like a large, backwards capital “E.” Working in hieratic fashion for decades now, Penck deftly involves his symbols with people, in ways that fascinate even if they cannot be easily explained.