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AR Penck: rites of passage…

[16 May 2017]

The great German artist A.R. PENCK (1939-2017) died on 2 May in Zurich while the Maeght Foundation in Southern France is currently hosting an exhibition of his work entitled “Rites of passage” (18 March to 18 June 2017) including roughly a hundred works (paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and book art created since 1957).

A new language…

Considered one of the great German artists of the late 20th century along with Markus LÜPERTZ, Sigmar POLKE, Georg BASELITZ (1938) and Jörg IMMENDORFF, to whom he was close, Ralf Winckler – better known as A.R. Penck – was initially turned down by several East German art schools. Artistically, Penck sought to create the symbols of a primal and universal language, simultaneously exploring archaic symbols, computer language models and cybernetics (the exploration of regulatory systems). Heavily influenced by an order-vs-chaos dichotomy, Penck’s work traversed history, time, styles and eras, inventing what some have called a “New German Expressionism”. His primitivism and spontaneity gave his work a close relationship to both graffiti art and art brut. He was also fond of creating automatic signs, symbols, alphabets, masks, powerful force lines and stick figures, usually mixed together in abstract/figurative compositions suggesting some kind of new spatial and temporal dimension that created a “new language”. When Penck deconstructed, it was to build something new, as though the invention of a new world was still possible.

In the 1980s, Penck was recognised throughout Europe as the creator of a new form of figuration. For those wishing to interpret his work he provided the following clues: “viewers of my drawings can easily identify five basic types of images. With a larger set of differentiation factors one could I suppose find a lot more. In any case… the first type is the abstract image, which looks like a sign; the second is the figurative drawing; the third, the purely automatic shape or form; the fourth is a kind of illusion, and the fifth is a destructive image. I wanted to show that signs can hide behind other signs and that my approach to these signs renders them transparent.” At that time, Penck became a major figures of Neo-expressionism and his theoretical reflections earned him a professorship at the Düsseldorf school of Fine Arts in 1988.

Fame and the market…

After the turn of the millennium, his fame reached beyond Europe’s borders and a series of exhibitions organized by the Michael Werner gallery in New York attracted demand from a number of American collectors. This gave new momentum to his market and his price index increased +176% between 2003 and 2008 generating a new auction record of more than $514,000 for a large canvas, Standart (1973), at Christie’s in London on 16 October 2007. Over the past 10 years, his works have sold in 17 countries around the world, from Japan to the Czech Republic, including Korea, Canada and the Netherlands (the latter accounts for 10% of his annual auction turnover). France, the USA and Switzerland share a little less than 15% of his turnover while his home country, Germany (32%) is just behind the UK market which captures a more international clientele (35% of his auction turnover over the last 10 years). However… demand for his work has remained both orderly and virtuous, avoiding any speculative surges. Over the last 10 years, only 26 of his works have crossed the $100,000 threshold while 330 of his works have fetched between $5,000 and $50,000. Moreover, Penck’s work is often affordable for less than $1,000 in the form of prints (more than 60% of his auction lots sold) which largely contributed to the public’s awareness of his work. In the same price range, certain limited edition sculptures are also available, as Penck was just as much a sculptor as he was a painter and a poet. Indeed, his early work in the 1940s was mostly three-dimensional.

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