Gerhard Richter and A.R. Penck

Visually, the works of Gerhard Richter and A.R. Penck belong to contrasting styles. The blurred focus in Richter’s most typical photo-paintings have nothing in common with the blunt, expressionist and primitivistic style of Penck’s huge graffiti-like paintings. Yet, before the erection of the Berlin Wall these artists grew up in the same creative environment of East Germany and evolved into two of Germany’s most renowned artists. The two separate, large exhibitions on their work, organized by and held at the Frissiras Museum of contemporary European painting, offer a rare opportunity to look at their work both in a comparative way and in the context of a more comprehensive approach of German art in the second half of the 20th century. While the paintings in Penck’s exhibition are all more or less of a uniform style, the stylistic diversity of Richter’s works almost give the viewer the impression that they could not possibly have been made by the hand of the same artist. Richter’s works blending photography and painting are perhaps the artist’s most recognizable ones. As early as 1962, a year after Richter moved to West Germany, the artist declared that he would «paint a photo.» «I wanted to possess the photograph and show it – not to use it as a means for painting but to use painting as a means for the photograph,» said the artist in one of his most-quoted statements. Trained in the social realism of the Dresden Academy, Richter found himself thrown in the style of informalism and tachism – essentially of abstraction and formalism – that prevailed in the Dusseldorf State Academy of Art. In a way, his combined use of photography and painting was a means of escaping the two extremes in which he was trained, an irreverent approach to conventional criteria in art and a stance that was possibly derived from Fluxus and neo-dadaism, the most avant-garde movement in Germany at the time. In Richter’s use of photography, the influence of the American Pop that had by the early 1960s reached Germany is also evident. The so-called movement of Capitalist Realism of which Richter became one of the pioneers (together with his colleagues Sigmar Polke, Guenther Uecker and Konrad Fischer-Lueg) is actually often considered the German version of pop art, but more critical and more strongly geared to social issues than American Pop. Working in the spirit of capitalist realism, Richter appropriated tabloids, snapshots taken from everyday life and pop culture – he later based his work on his own photographs – and copied them in the medium of paintings. One of his early techniques consisted of projecting the photos on the screen with an episcope and copying them. The technique of taking away the colors of still-wet paint with a sponge or a sliding brush dissolved the contours and gave the effect of looking at an image through a veil. In general, the result is a strange blend of photography’s narrative aspect and figuration with the aestheticism and abstraction of painting, a combination of formalism with realism. Blurred and out of focus, Richter’s paintings force the viewer to look closer and more attentively and also address complex questions regarding representations. Seen against those photo-based works, Richter’s abstract paintings of explosive, radiant colors and different layerings of paint seem entirely different, perhaps less classical and more exuberant. Yet their energy and sense of movement have something in common with the out-of-focus, blurred images of his photo-based works. There is this hazy feeling of something implied but not fully revealed, of something that is contained within the picture. The viewer is challenged to discover it – by lifting the veil in the photo-based works or reading through the layers in the more colorful, abstract paintings. Neo-expressionism A.R. Penck’s works reach out to the viewer in a different and perhaps bolder way. Resembling huge murals that recall African art or graffiti, Penck’s paintings of the 1980s (when he had left East Germany to settle in London and Ireland) capture the streak of neo-expressionism that was prevalent in Europe and which in Germany summons a long tradition of expressionist art. Interestingly, although Penck’s paintings seem to share much in common with a primitivistic aesthetic, they also derive from the artist’s sophisticated study of science, cybernetics, information theory, literature and philosophy. Visually, this is not necessarily evident. But the artist’s preoccupation with sign-making and the problems of signifying is somehow there, laying on the flat surfaces and boldly outlined figures of his paintings. A visual language including geometric shapes, abstract symbols and signals, a hieroglyphic mix of letters as well as patterns and stick figures, Penck’s cryptic paintings evoke an ancient, mystical past. Somehow one senses the spiritual strand in German art that begins with Romanticism and continues through Joseph Beuys. The work of A.R. Penck follows this tradition that is so German yet so distinctly his, so collective and yet personal. This blending of the two is what his art is about. Gerhard Richter and A.R. Penck at the Frissiras Museum of Contemporary European Painting (3-7 Monis Asteriou, Plaka, 210.323.4678, through December 4.

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