A. R. PENCK (1939-2017)
A. R. PENCK (1939-2017)
A. R. PENCK (1939-2017)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A DANISH CORPORATE COLLECTION
A. R. PENCK (1939-2017)

Übergang (L) (Crossing)

A. R. PENCK (1939-2017)
Übergang (L) (Crossing)
signed 'ar. penck' (lower right)
dispersion on canvas
112 5/8 x 196 7/8in. (286 x 500cm.)
Executed in 1988
Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne.
Galleri Susanne Ottesen, Copenhagen.
Private Collection, Denmark.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1992.
O. Basciano, 'AR Penck obituary', in The Guardian, 5 May 2017.
Y. Koon, Yoshitomo Nara, London 2020, fig. 32 (illustrated, p. 31).
Berlin, Nationalgalerie Berlin, a.r.penck, 1988, p. 251, no. 137 (illustrated in colour, p. 235). This exhibition later travelled to Zurich, Kunsthaus Zurich.
Copenhagen, Galleri Susanne Ottesen, A.R. Penck. Maleri, skulptur, tegning, 1989.
Silkeborg, Museum Jorn, A.R. Penck, 2022, p. 227, no. 47 (illustrated in colour, pp. 119-220).
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. This lot will be removed to our storage facility at Momart. Christie’s will inform you if the lot has been sent offsite. Our removal and storage of the lot is subject to the terms and conditions of storage which can be found at Christies.com/storage and our fees for storage are set out in the table below - these will apply whether the lot remains with Christie’s or is removed elsewhere. Please call Christie’s Client Service 24 hours in advance to book a collection time at Momart. All collections from Momart will be by pre-booked appointment only. Tel: +44 (0)20 7839 9060 Email: cscollectionsuk@christies.com. If the lot remains at Christie’s it will be available for collection on any working day 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. Lots are not available for collection at weekends. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord Senior Specialist, Head of Department

Lot Essay

Painted in 1988—and included in the artist’s major retrospective at the Nationalgalerie Berlin that year, at which time it was in his personal collection— Übergang (L) (Crossing) is a monumental painting by A. R. Penck. The canvas spans five metres across and almost three metres in height, with crowds of figures and signs painted in black against a white backdrop; subtle flashes of red, blue and yellow glow amid the monochrome ground. The composition, at once humorous, symbolically loaded and deeply intellectual, exemplifies Penck’s unmistakable visual language. The word Übergang translates to ‘crossing’ or ‘transition’ in German, and was used during the Soviet era to refer to authorised transfer points along the Berlin Wall: Penck made an earlier series of works by this title in 1980, when he was expatriated from East Germany and began a new life in the West. Painted eight years later while he was living in London, the present work exhibits the nuanced, complex outside view of post-Cold-War society that defined Penck’s later decades, with its graphic glyphs and characters alluding to conflict, commerce, control and creativity in a vast and dynamic pictorial system.

Born Ralf Winkler in Dresden in 1939, much of Penck’s life was defined by war. He witnessed the firebombing of his home city at the age of six, and grew up amid its ruins. While his contemporaries Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz—the latter of whom he knew from the age of fifteen—both moved from East to West Germany during the 1950s, Penck stayed until he was forty, working in increasingly hostile circumstances. Informed by his reading in cybernetics, systems theory and the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, as well as an abiding interest in jazz music, he developed his distinctive vocabulary of primitivist figures and signs from the 1960s onwards. Designed to be a universal language for analysing the relationship between the individual and society, Penck’s Standart, as he called it, stood in stark opposition to state-sanctioned Socialist Realism, and quickly drew the ire of the East German authorities. Unable to exhibit under his own name, he worked under a variety of pseudonyms, often smuggling paintings over the border with the help of his Cologne-based gallerist Michael Werner. He chose the name A. R. Penck—adding the ‘R’ for his own first initial—in homage to the geologist Albrecht Penck, who had specialised in formations caused by the Ice Age. His artistic mission was to anatomise the societal impacts of another kind of glacial epoch—the Cold War.

Penck’s troubles with the GDR came to a head in 1979, when members of the secret police trashed his Dresden studio. He was expelled the following year, sold to the West by the East German regime under the infamous Häftlingsfreikauf trade system used to get rid of unwanted dissidents. The following decade saw a rise to international acclaim for Penck, who was able to work and exhibit more freely. He was included in the seminal exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1981, and the landmark group exhibition Zeitgeist at the Gropius Bau, Berlin, in 1982; 1984 saw his participation in the Venice Biennale and his first show with Mary Boone / Michael Werner Gallery in New York. By this time, alongside his compatriots Polke, Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff, he was seen as part of the German vanguard of a ‘New Figuration’ movement that was sweeping aside the dominance of Minimal and Conceptual art. The forces of man and machine, tradition and modernity, superstition and science entangled across the surfaces of his works. While they also bore similarities to the work of American artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat—who were likewise informed by cave paintings, Picasso and graffiti—Penck’s pictures were born of a very different context. Based on a vast, cyclical view of human history, his invocations of ancient art implied that modern civilisation, despite its technological progress, was no less liable to violence and folly than the very earliest societies.

With its panoramic, vivid array of figures and forms, Übergang (L) (Crossing) reflects Penck’s newfound liberty and sense of exploration during this period. It also relates closely to East and West, a pair of important paintings which were painted shortly after his transition in 1980, and are today held in the collection of the Tate, London. East, completed first, was originally to have been titled Übergang. In East, the figures and signs appear in white on a black background—negative against positive—while in West the opposite is true, with figures standing out against negative space. The protagonist in the former is entrapped and imperilled, reaching vainly towards images of freedom; the latter unfolds as a busy, functioning machine of images, full of multiplicity, choice and ambivalence. The two share a number of symbols with the present work, including an eagle-headed figure that signifies government, concentric circles that represent the ‘inner circle’ of authority, an ‘A’ that designates the East German system, and a ‘B’ for the semi-official ‘alternative’ system based on transactions between East and West Germany—the mechanism by which Penck himself was repatriated. At the centre of Übergang (L) (Crossing) is an alien-like being crossing from East to West who likely represents the artist: he is pursued by two figures brandishing weapons, one of them holding a jerrycan of fuel. In its complexity of movement and mural scale, the work represents Penck’s vision of himself in flight between two structures of power, their manifold parts forming a tangled apparatus of disorienting, sometimes contradictory meaning.

With no formal art training, Penck’s visual research had been confined to books and colour reproductions of modern art until he left for the West. He travelled widely during the 1980s, living for several years in Dublin and in London, where the present work was painted. During these years he embraced new influences and a more liberated way of working. ‘In West Germany the past was always haunting me,’ he reflected in 1986; ‘the business of mourning isn’t over. And that got on my nerves. I was seeking a more relaxed way of life, so I hit on the idea of the Nordic world, a world that had always interested me. England and Ireland are the islands with the most mysterious relics of a distant cultural past. I think prehistoric monuments like New Grange or Stonehenge still contain unresolved questions. One day their real meaning might have its effect on present conditions … I can imagine these monuments having a great influence in the future, because they’re centres of ancient cults which still emit clear signals’ (A. R. Penck quoted in A. Schlieker, ‘The Northern Darkness: An Interview with A. R. Penck December 1986’, in A. R. Penck, exh. cat. Galerie Beyeler, Basel 1989, n.p.). With its own structure of signals, biographical narrative and transcendent semiotics, Übergang (L) (Crossing) is alive with that same mythic wonder: it is an animated dance of figure and symbol, embodying Penck’s original, powerful engagement with the world and his place within it.

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