Penck painted Tryptichon für Basquiat four years after he had been forced to leave the former German Democratic Republic. By then he had won wide recognition, consolidated by the many exhibitions that had included works of his: the Venice Biennale—which he attended as the German representative—and exhibitions in New York and Düsseldorf. Nevertheless, that coincided with a period of disillusion in which he was upset by the major upheaval that being forced to emigrate had wrought in his life and worried about the series of events taking place in Germany, especially the strained relations between the Federal and Democratic Republics. He did not stand aside from that situation. In spite of his obvious disenchantment, at the age of forty-five his energy was at its peak. It was then that he embarked on his project Quo vadis, Germania? and made various jazz recordings, which for him were a better way of working off his aggression than painting. During those years he returned to and worked on the “Standart”. Almost fifteen years after he had first used those simple visual elements, Penck intended, in his own words, “to influence the argument about the art question”. His interest in recovering that expressive force is not to be wondered at. In 1981, with other German artists like Markus Lupertz or Georg Baselitz, he burst onto the New York market with unexpected success. The city, which at the time was leaving behind a period marked by the continual reformulations of Conceptual Art, welcomed their work with open arms. Local critics and artists sensed an energy, a sensitivity and a subjectivity in their work to which they were not accustomed. That presence was compensated by the sudden appearance on the scene of New York artists from the less well represented sectors, people with no academic training who went from obscurity to stardom in just a few months. Among them were the graffiti artists, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, to whom this piece is dedicated. Both men caused major upheaval in the art scene of the day. Their painting combined the roundness and the visual appeal of the spontaneous line generated by aerosol sprays with the expressive force of their subjects. Tryptichon für Basquiat is one of the results of Penck’s contact with those painters. From his old “Standart”, he retrieved his use of rounded, elemental visual signs, though filtered through the new underground culture. Perhaps the greatest difference is the composition, considerably more dynamic than before, and the inclusion of an iconography far from the European one: people from different cultures—recognisable by their varied skin colour—and geometrical forms that were common among African and Caribbean peoples. The triptych is open to different readings, given the range of possible interpretations of the thirty or so symbols that appear on the white background of the canvas. Penck continued to work on these new “Standart” for some time, though, as on other occasions throughout his evolution as an artist, he did not take long to leave that path since, as he himself said, “Western subject matter is an extremely complicated political battle for me”.
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