German painter, draughtsman, sculptor, film maker, writer and musician. Having painted from the age of ten, in 1955 he made repeated applications to study at the academies in Dresden and East Berlin but was turned down. He served a one-year apprenticeship as a draughtsman in 1956 before working at a number of different jobs. As early as 1960 he began to paint stick figures and a range of standardized signs, extending this schematic language from 1963 with ideas derived from mathematics, cybernetics and theoretical physics. In such works as Large World Picture (poster paint on fibreboard, 1.72×2.6 m, 1965; Ludwig priv. col., on loan to Basle, Mus. Gegenwartskst), this simplified range of figures and forms, painted in such a way as to convey a spontaneous energy and intensity, is also used to present political and social concerns.
Penck formulated the basis of his mature style while living in East Berlin from 1963 to 1972. After experiencing difficulties with the East German authorities, making it awkward for him to exhibit his work publicly, in 1969 he smuggled his works to Cologne for a one-man show at Galerie Michael Werner. It was at this time, after reading the works of the geologist Albrecht Penck (1858–1945), a specialist on the Ice Age, that he settled on his pseudonym. In spite of further trouble over the political repercussions of his work (in 1973–4 he was forced to serve in the Volksarmee as a disciplinary measure), he continued to exhibit regularly in West Germany while living in East Berlin, Lindenau (1972–6) and Dresden (1976–80). He also worked collaboratively with a West German artist, Jörg Immendorff, whom he first met in East Berlin in 1976. Throughout this period he exercised a strong influence, not only because he addressed political and social problems in his pictures but also because of his ability to formulate models or concepts giving a general, comprehensive picture of the world.
Penck’s early work, while suggesting some influence from Picasso, is distinguished by a non-academic directness. Limiting himself in sometimes brutally simplified paintings such as Standpoint (acrylic on canvas, 2.9×2.9 m, 1971; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.) to figures formed from simple constellations of lines, combined with other pictorial signs and emblems, he gradually stripped his painting of its tonal relationships; this served to heighten the legibility and symbolic content of graphically arresting motifs exposed against neutral backgrounds. Through such means he established a state of tension between the articulation and lack of optical ambiguity of his figures and signs, on the one hand, and their formal painterly independence on the other. The powerful expressiveness of his work can be attributed to the dynamic contrast of spontaneity and discipline.
Similar impulses can be detected in Penck’s work as a sculptor, beginning with objects constructed as early as the 1960s from cardboard boxes, slats, empty bottles, tinfoil and other discarded materials, through which he extended the symbolic iconography of his paintings into three dimensions (e.g. Standart–Model, 1964; see 1988 W. Berlin exh. cat., p. 29). These were followed in the 1980s by wood sculptures, sometimes monumental in scale, which in certain cases served as maquettes cast into bronze. Enjoying the freedom of working in different media, Penck was also active as a jazz musician, releasing his first record album in 1979 and making appearances in groups or as a solo percussionist. He also published theoretical writings, characterized by an idiosyncratic philosophical and polemical content conveyed in an innovative linguistic style, sometimes juxtaposing or interspersing them with poems.
On obtaining an exit visa from East Germany in 1980, Penck settled in Cologne, although he made frequent visits to Israel in 1983–4 before moving to London. He marked his arrival in West Germany with a pair of large black-and-white paintings, East and West (both acrylic on canvas, 2.5×4 .0m, 1980; London, Tate), conceived respectively as a non-functioning machine and a functioning one, a contrast between the two political and economic systems. Penck remained in the West, living and working in Dublin, London, Düsseldorf and Cologne.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press