For the first time after the sudden death of Ferdinand Penker, Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder is presenting a selection of his works.
Penker’s paintings question artistic conventions. His deep interest in architecture is not so much reflected in his sculptures, as it is embodied in the dynamic interaction between plane and space that runs throughout his career. His paintings – often airy, monochrome compositions – appear to be based on spontaneous gestures, but in reality, they are meticulously staged. Penker’s canvases, drawings, and prints bear witness to his devotion to the traditional field of painting and are at the same time snapshots of a working and living process that was at the core of the artist’s real focus.
Ferdinand Penker had an unusual life. Born in 1950, he decided to study medicine despite his interest in art, and he later incorporated a conceptual and research-based approach to his artistic practice. After getting to know Josef Albers in 1971, he decided to move to San Francisco in 1977. There, he began teaching at the UC Davis in 1982. The Californian light and the minimalist art of his West Coast colleagues influenced his understanding of art, and this sensitivity continued to define his work after he returned to Austria in 1987. He also spent time in Africa and Japan, where gained many strong impressions that helped him to further develop his work. Penker died unexpectedly last year.
The development of Ferdinand Penker’s art was decidedly influenced by architecture. In his earliest perspective drawings, Penker depicts how the eyes of the beholder tend to move over artistic forms. He took these architectural fragments and “unfolded” them, translating them onto a plane – like a cut-out sheet. The tension between plane and space accompanied Penker his entire life – inspiring him, for example, to assemble his paintings in installations, or to build entire rooms around his paintings. From 1975 on, colors and artistic processes gained the upper hand, and representative elements gradually disappeared. Penker began using countless small brushstrokes to construct the surfaces of his pictures. Although this all-over painting style became more gestural, and hence more dramatic, in the 1980s, these paintings nevertheless followed a subtle temporal dramaturgy based on deceleration and omission. Ferdinand Penker demands that we use our knowledge and skills of observation to perceive the real processes behind the fashionable appearances.
Clearly, the artist believed that the act of painting was more important than painting itself, and this process remained his central motif (and was understood as an investment of the time one has in life). There are many factors that point to this. Already in California, he integrated the local earth in his paintings, creating a connection between the place where he lived and the picture. Penker always regarded collecting pigments and making his own painting materials as part of the creative process. His music and his interest in film may have also made him more open to a performative understanding of art. For example, in later installations from 1986 and 2008 made during his two stays in Japan, he staged the life of a hikikomori – a person who voluntarily lives isolated from society – thereby exploring life’s social aspects.
After the major retrospective of his work in the Museum Moderner Kunst Kärnten (MMMK) in 2010, the Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder is now offering the opportunity to take another look at works by this important Austrian artist. This second glance is necessary, for Ferdinand Penker was the source of many misunderstandings and challenged the conventional point of view with his subtle humor, making him a difficult figure in the art world. It is therefore all the more rewarding to explore his work again and to leave styles and fashionable trends aside.
Text: Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen
Dor Leitner-Penker and Galerie nächst St. Stephan are partners in the management of the artist’s estate.