a.r penck

Mary Boone Gallery, New York City, November 2, 1985

Klaus Ottmann: Could you talk about the paintings?

A.R. Penck: Yes, well, I painted all the small ones in the art school in Cologne. It was good because I was able to put up fifteen or sixteen easels in one room. The first one is called "Black Lion" after Rembrandt's lion drawing. I don't know if you've seen it but it is pretty famous. There are not many good animal pictures. There are animal painters and there the animals always play an important part. I am very interested in that.

Ottmann: What does the lion stand for?

Penck: Actually, I just see that formally as a theme.

Ottmann: The next painting is very abstract, very geometric.

Penck: That one is called "Face" — Russian style, or so. (Laughs)

Ottmann: And that one?

Penck: "Eagle against Ape."

Ottmann: Does that have a meaning? Is it a fight?

Penck: Yes, it is a fight, "Eagle against Ape," that's very difficult, that is actually the most difficult of all. (Laughs)

Ottmann: Does the eagle stand for Germany?

Penck: No, for God's sake, in regard to content, you can't see it like that. That leads one uncannily astray. As a fallacy it is, on the other hand, good again. The next painting is called "Dis Dis." There is already a big version "Dis." This one here is that big painting simplified. In the "Zeitgeist" exhibition there were two paintings: one was called "Dis" and the other one, "Chi Tong." This here is "Dis" but small and that over there is "Chi Tong," also small. It is called "The Sentimentality of the Western World." You could say that this is West against East or ape against eagle.(Laughs)

Ottmann: How did you get to the smaller format?

Penck: Well, I have always painted small paintings but I have also always been interested in big and giant formats. That got me interested in the relation of micro and macro, small and big. And now, I try to transfer the experience I have had with the big formats to the small paintings.

Ottmann: Is that difficult?

Penck: Yes, that is very difficult. Not everyone is able to put up giant paintings. The big paintings, they are rather interesting.

Ottmann: How did you get to this sign language anyway?

Penck: That is really a very old thing. It started in the sixties or the end of the fifties, after I had intensively studied a number of artists. The decisive factors were essentially economic ones, not only material economy but also spiritual economy. And this spiritual economy has interested me, even at the time when I was well off, when I could get lots of paint. At the beginning, however, the scarcity of supplies played an important role — a certain Mangelform [form through deficiency].

Ottmann: How did you develop your sign language?

Penck: There are, first of all, possibilities to get to them through abstraction and then one can put them together again, that means deductively. If, at first, you have your building block system, then you can put them together any way. This is what I basically tried to develop, to transfer a kind of building block system to my paintings that I could really play with. (Laughs) But then I noticed that if I do that, consequently it becomes too one-sided. And then I started to pick up other things like illusions or certain material qualities. This is somehow a principle argument between the abstract system and the act of always wanting to take something into it that suggests more reality. These paintings here are very abstract but that comes also from the format. The big paintings were not that abstract. That is, again, more of a building-block system.

Ottmann: The paintings in the big room are much more worked out and figurative.

Penck: Yes, I guess I am a figurative kind of guy, but there are also abstract paintings. It is difficult to get the abstract paintings into the gallery even if you have them. Do you get that?

Ottmann: Yes, I understand what you mean.

Penck: That's not so easy. If it were the other way around, it would probably be difficult to get the figurative work into the gallery.

Ottmann: How do you see the American graffiti artists? They are often compared to you.

Penck: Well, we had done something similar to that ten years ago in the East in the seventies. The only thing was, we didn't have spray cans. We wrote, therefore, on the walls with simple chalk like they have in schools. I think it's important, but I'm not a graffiti artist because I come from a different background. I went there and I can leave again. It's a different thing. But the idea or the discovery of this form of expression was around at that time, of "art brut" or whatever else there was.

Ottmann: Graffiti was around already in cave painting.

Penck: Cave painting is something else. That does not have much to do with graffiti. That is a different style.

Ottmann: Some of your signs clearly derive from cave painting — the spiral and the triangle, for example.

Penck: Umm. Yes, there are those elements. They appear but that has not much to do with it. We don't live in the Stone Age anymore. At one time I was very interested in that because people came to me and said, that looks like African rock pictures. But that was in the sixties, 1960–61. Then I incorporated that, the whole thing, Stone Age and so on. That is very interesting and it could be that there is still something coming out of that direction for me, but principally I want to show that I am a modern human being and I live in a modern world and that it is not useful to conjure up once again the aesthetics of a former time because that was a totally different world. No artist succeeds in doing that simply because he doesn't live in that world and has no direct access to it. With that we come back to graffiti and that it is possible that people express directly what they were not allowed or not able to do in another time. There were those expressions too but they were not noticed because they were not part of the spiritual system of the former world. They were not part of an artistic conception and that was important, that it expanded, that they came into it. But there are still differences from interesting to boring. It's important, first of all, that everyone can express themselves and then comes differentiation and looking at materials.
Then one notices the mistakes or the glitches which go with such things and why it is like it is. And then everything becomes again psychology and science and changes the whole. But for the moment I find it very important that the people can express themselves. Whether that has to be necessarily in the form of graffiti on building walls, that is again a different conflict, a social conflict. But now, actually, that time is over because the discovery was made. Many have made those discoveries inside themselves and it is simply more difficult from this first step to do the next steps, to go further on and to really come to terms with a picture or communication.

Ottmann: Do you see the development of the graffiti from the streets into the studio and the gallery as a good thing.

Penck: Yes, I do.

Ottmann: The development, especially the commercialization, of graffiti is often criticized.

Penck: Yes, with commerce it becomes like that. That is always strange in the West. It is like a priest who doesn't believe in God. (Laughs) It is like that in Western commercialization. Nobody wants to have anything to do with that because, basically, it is seen as something negative, although it is the principle of this system. This is something totally paradoxical. This is something strange. I believe that things develop insofar as people are really interested in a picture or in expanded art or an expanded conception of art, as Joseph [Beuys] always puts it beautifully, and all that is associated with that. No one is spared from moving through society directly. It does not make sense to always stand outside the door, one must go through it. That means, a kind of going through or never being left out. But right now, a level has been reached, from my point of view, that graffiti has somehow stagnated.

Ottmann: How do you like New York? Could you imagine working here?

Penck: It is a little bit expensive. There are two things in New York; on the one hand, there is a great optimism and then there is also a repressive behavior, a kind of shyness, a kind of fear in the people. That is, again, a little bit paradoxical but interesting. I would like to work for some time here. I already worked here for two months. I had a loft, a studio. There I painted an eight-meter painting, "New York, New York."

Ottmann: Was New York inspiring for you?

Penck: Yes, sure.

Ottmann: There are a lot of Germans here. You, yourself, went to Ireland.

Penck: Yes, the problem is either one goes to a different city and when you continue to work like before it becomes problematic, therefore, one has to get closer to a different problematic and has to go through that again. That changes very fast with the language and also the way of life and that somehow comes apart. With me, it is like that, that I left the East and,therefore I can only slowly penetrate the net. (Laughs) I am becoming more and more Western. In the beginning, I was still very Eastern but now I am more and more Western. One can see that in the paintings. As the West is more and more interested in the East, there is another transformation. As I am getting more and more Western, the East gets again more and more interesting than the West. It is always like that, that opposites always attract one another.

Ottmann: But one remains always somehow rooted in one's homeland.

Penck: Yes, a little bit, but I have no relationship to that anymore. I am totally finished with the thing on the other side. Actually, I left that behind me. It disappeared in a black hole, the past.

Ottmann: You have said that your work is still advancing. Is there still much more to do than to change symbols and signs that are already there?

Penck: There is still much to do. That is just the beginning.

Ottmann: Where will you go?

Penck: I don't know exactly but, in any case, it always leads me to more complex systems and by the same token always to greater abstraction, that is, to more formulaic things. I see both movements as important.

Ottmann: Does that have something to do with you working yourself into the Western system?

Penck: It has to do with that.

Ottmann: How did you come to music?

Penck: That is a long story. When I was sixteen I listened to Schonberg and Webern, all the Modernists, what was modern at that time. Then a workshop for Jazz was founded and I became a member. That was for two years. Then it was outlawed, like it always was in the East. Then my interest started. I didn't play myself, I first only listened to it. For us, it was interesting as background music. Later on, I got interested in playing because I didn't only want to listen, I wanted to do it myself. I got my first gig in 1975 in a Jazz cellar. That was really very successful. Then I slowly continued on and now I make a lot of music but in my spare time. It is my biggest hobby, music.

Ottmann: Do you see a relationship between the music and your paintings?

Penck: Yes, in the rhythm because I am very interested in rhythm. Aside from that, there is no big relation.

Ottmann: You have taken on a series of pseudonyms in the course of your artistic activities.

Penck: Yes, I wanted to make distinctions between things.

Ottmann: Each period?

Penck: Yes, as a point of reference. When one talks about it, the thing has a name and one can differentiate it. Mostly that depends on the space that I worked in.

Ottmann: Can you imagine changing your pseudonym once again?

Penck: Yes, I hope that I can do that once again but it is not that simple. One never knows, we'll see . . .

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.