Born in Dresden in 1939, A.R. Penck was deeply affected by the images of a city laid to waste from bombings that he experienced from his bedroom window in 1945. An enduring influence in his artistic output, Penck stated, ‚I am encumbered with many memories and events from East Germany. I return often to my childhood‘ (A.R. Penck, ‚Text from A.R. Penck April 1982‘, in A.R. Penck, exh. cat., Waddington Galleries, London, 1982, unpaged). Until his emigration to West Germany in 1980, Penck persevered in making art under the intolerably oppressive conditions in East Germany in staunch belief that his art could contribute to making a better version of Socialism. Penck developed his ‚Standart‘ style in paintings, sculptures and models using a primitive stick figure with its arms raised toward the sky, evoking equal sensations of fear, in conjunction with his studies in cybernetics, the science of communication in machines and living things. The term Standart conflates ’standard‘ and ’standarte‘, a banner for a military unit and is the artist’s most celebrated series. Taking its first impulses from visual systems like tribal art and hieroglyphics, Penck’s Standart was designed as a complex vocabulary of signs and symbols with universal comprehension that had the potential to analyse the relationship between the individual and society. ‚The Standart concept was intended as my positive contribution to socialism‘, Penck explained, Standart is also to do with the idea of objects which stand. My original idea was to erect something under socialism. And I’m still keen on the idea of erecting something here‘ (A.R. Penck, quoted in A. Schlieker, ‚An Interview with A.R. Penck December 1986‘, in A.R. Penck, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1989, unpaged).

The development of Standart in an East German context was foiled by the realities of the art landscape at that time. In 1968 Penck was denied full membership to the Association of Artists (VBK) at the end of his three-year probationary period, an event which confirmed that his art would continue to be ignored by in his native East Germany, as had been the case since 1962 when he was banned from showing his works in public. Indeed his break with traditional art forms and advancement of Standart can be understood in light of this event as it is from this time that we see Penck’s practice split into those made for exhibition in East Germany and those made exclusively for exhibitions in the West where he had been receiving acclaim, participating in the Venice Biennale in 1984 and Documenta 5 in 1972. Those works created for exhibition beyond the borders of East Germany include almost all of his large-format canvases of which Standart (Gorgo) is one. This work was exhibited in 1981 at Josef-Haubrich Kunstalle, Cologne, the year after Penck was granted leave from East Germany.

The key to this innovative conflation of form, colour and sign is Penck’s interest in such phenomena as cybernetics, information theory, codes and ciphers, all of which he exploits imaginatively, and sometimes humorously, in his pictures in order to analyse the social landscape of East Germany that comprised his personal and artistic practice.

The primitive symbols found in Standart have an especially tribal feel to them which recalls the African masks that Picasso and other artists from the early 20th century used as inspiration in their art. Indeed Penck was a deeply influenced by the great modern master, noting in 1989 that ‚I’ve always been strongly preoccupied with Picasso, partly because he was regarded as so suspect in East Germany‘ (A.R. Penck, quoted in A. Schlieker, ‚An Interview with A.R. Penck December 1986‘, in A.R. Penck, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1989, unpaged). Penck also borrows from primitive art in his use of emblematic animals in opposition as metaphors, more often than not, of the German condition. Here Penck may have depicted East and West Germany as two Gorgons, wreaking terror on the helpless hostages above. In their placement, these Gorgons evoke two halves of the human brain, a motif that Penck often explored in his practice, where conflict and communication between East and West take place between the two. The interplay of figures imbues the work with various layers of meaning which are kept in perfect harmony through Penck’s use of surface and colour encoded in Penck’s singular lexicon of ciphers.

The large format recalls sections of a wall covered with the detritus of mankind’s modes of communication: graffiti, hieroglyphics, by-gone languages from another time and place. These large compositions attempted to consolidate Penck’s earlier investigations into the nature of signs and symbols. In its equal measures of fear, defense, appeal and communication, works on this scale also have an element of the distillation of the military banner evoked in the punning title of the series.