A.R. Penck, opening lines of ‘Poem for Basquiat’ written for: Exh. Cat., New York, Mary Boone; Michael Werner, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984, n.p.
Encapsulating A.R. Penck’s complex idiom of symbols and cyphers, Welt des Adlers I (World of the Eagle I) is a seminal work from the German artist’s celebrated oeuvre. The painting was executed in 1981, at a pivotal moment in Penck’s career following his life altering move from East Germany to West in August 1980. Exhibited in the year of its creation in the artist's retrospective at the Kunsthalle Bern, Welt des Adlers I was illustrated on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue, marking its vast importance within his oeuvre. Rendered in dispersed black pigment on a grey ground, the painting depicts a monumental central figure – part-eagle, part-man – surrounded by rudimentary shapes and symbols including a smaller stick figure, X’s, triangles, circles and squares. Both figures’ eyes are aglow in a pool of electric blue. Ostensibly simple, his pictorial language is in fact deeply intricate and profound: drawing from an array of sources spanning cave art, ancient hieroglyphics and African tribal art, the work appears at once mythic and contemporary, otherworldly and naive. As critic Mark Stevens noted in 1983, “His pictures are at once simple and complex; they suggest all kinds of systems but ones not fully understood by modern man” (Mark Stevens, Newsweek, Vol. 102, New York 1983, n.p.).
With its bold delineations and crudely rendered forms, Welt des Adlers I draws dialogue with the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Composed with a similarly ‘primitive’ aesthetic, Basquiat’s Self-Portrait from 1982 bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the present work: both paintings are charged with a raw vitality and ferocious spirit; both artists were fuelled by an erudite knowledge of art history, and united in their quest for a universal pictorial syntax that would overcome segregation in all its forms. The two artists shared a great mutual respect for one another and, in 1984, Penck payed homage to his friend with a poem that was published in Basquiat’s exhibition catalogue of the same year.
Penck coined the term Standart to describe his distinctive pictorial style, which he developed from the late 1960s onwards. A conflation of ‘standard’ and ‘art’, combined with an echo of the German word standarte, signifying a banner or flag, the term represented a universally accessible aesthetic, a standard art for all, which would transcend language, boundaries and borders. As the artist described, “Every Standart can be imitated and reproduced and can thus become the property of every individual. What we have here is a true democratisation of art” (A.R. Penck cited in: Oliver Basciano, ‘A.R. Penck Obituary’, The Guardian, 5 May 2017, online). Penck was born in Dresden in 1939 and grew up in a war-torn and divided nation: his experiences were to profoundly impact his life and career. At a time when the East ‘Democratic Republic’ and the West ‘Federal Republic’ forged a fractured arena in which the diametrically opposed ideologies of Soviet Communism and Western Capitalism met head-to-head, Penck forged his artistic identity. Under the strict communist regime of East Germany, Penck’s works were smuggled out and exhibited in the West under various pseudonyms. By the 1970s, he had sufficiently roused the suspicions of the secret police, who began confiscating his artworks for alleged dissidence. In 1980, he was formally expatriated and emigrated to West Germany, marking his momentous transition to international prominence. Abounding with historical import, poignant significance and mythic allure, Welt des Adlers I potently exemplifies Penck’s revolutionary practice.
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