Azikiwe Mohammed, Prodigy, 2017, digital illustration.

MY FAMILY IS VERY SMALL, which makes the holidays a difficult affair. When one portion of our family is having a tough time, there aren’t many options for recourse. We almost always go to grandma’s house. She lives in Westbury, Long Island, and at the time my two cousins and aunt all lived on Long Island as well. We sold my grandmother’s house last year. We don’t do Christmas Eve / morning, as there aren’t any children in the family, and our gift exchange has a five-dollar limit. None of the festivities take much time, so Christmas night usually finds me back in the city by 10 PM, at home or at a bar. My fellow LIRR riders are either carrying presents or doubling up as part of a couple contingent en route to the other half’s family. The MTA is even quieter, as most city dwellers are already at their destination with the people that matter most. After stopping at a bar near Thirty-Fourth Street I was on the train home by 11 or so. There was only one other person in my car, and the rest of the train that had pulled up ahead was empty. We acknowledged each other but understood the time, the day it was, and who was out at this hour, so there wasn’t much to say. A few stops later a person wearing an all-white unbranded sweat suit, a matching white beanie, and Timbs got onto our portion of the train. This new train friend had giant rectangles in his pockets that were the exact shape of money. I quickly tried to guestimate how much money was split between these twin pocketed shapes, and what the sum was divided among different denominations. Upon looking at the other passenger I could see he was doing the same. While staring at my fellow witness I saw something else in his face that had crossed my mind but that I had blamed on the one drink I had. I knew our white-clothed money-holding friend. It was Prodigy from Mobb Deep. Having grown up in New York during the ’90s there was no mistaking this man. I was just having a hard time believing it. I owned all the Mobb Deep albums, P’s solo work, had even rebought the physical records when I outgrew my CDs and bumped Infamous Mobb in between my Heltah Skeltah and Cannibal Ox. I adopted the “dunn” language due to a story I heard that P came up with the word dunn because he had a slur, and while trying to say “son” said “dunn,” and it stuck. So he kept it. I had / have a slur that I still struggle with. As quickly as I could race thru these thoughts, get the attention of my P-spotting accomplice, and figure out how to wish Prodigy a Merry Christmas, P had assessed the situation and got off the train. The next time I would see Prodigy was in the same neighborhood but at a distance that made everyone feel more comfortable. I was at B.B. Kings. It was just P and Havoc. It rained all night.

Mobb Deep Show at B.B. Kings, 2011. Photo: Azikiwe Mohammed.

Azikiwe Mohammed is an artist living in NYC.

Jean Stein, photographed in New York, 1991. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.

Jean Stein
Taught me how to walk out
Of movies.
Sit center.
Order the biggest popcorn.
Give the movie its opening credits
And then a minimum of three minutes.
Do you like this, Ottessa?
See me grin and shake my head no.
Then stand and duck and go.
Say, Excuse me!
To the knees of those poor souls
About to waste another hour or two of their lives
For twelve dollars and fifty cents.

Jean Stein
Spilled her popcorn along the sidewalk
Like a trail for the angels.
As if to say,
Here I am, here I go.
Don’t lose track of me
Because I am one of you.

The times we stayed,
She exclaimed at every magic moment.
Wow! Wow! Oh my God!
So enraptured and delighted
She couldn’t hear the shushes from the audience
Over her Wows!
And Huhs!
And Oh my Gods!
Tell everyone what you love.
Exclaim without shame, Ottessa.
Oh my God!
Did you see that?

And that is just one thing
That I had with Jean.
Imagine ten thousand people.
Imagine one hundred thousand people.
Imagine all the things she had with anyone
And what we have with anyone.
Be it a handshake
Or a painting
Or a true friendship.
Or the song of a bird
Or the East River
Or a stroke of genius
Or an orchid on the windowsill.
Even just all the passing glances on the street.
Can you imagine all you’ve shared
With everyone?
Don’t you want to share it all with everyone?

Imagine Jean.
I wish I could put my arm around her again.
Wouldn’t you want to put your arms around her?
Because she shows you enchantment
And the heartstunning madness
Which is your gratitude for life?
For the lucky break
That you even get to be here?

Jean Stein kept a tube of Neutrogena lip balm
On her working table.
She ate cold soups at lunch.
She gave me a blue cashmere sweater one birthday.
When I had food poisoning
She stood by the bathroom door with a glass of water.
Oh, Ottessa.
Oh, my dear Ottessa.
You poor thing,
As I retched,
Grateful, in fact,
That I had eaten the bad clam that did it,
And not Jean.

And can you stomach my sincerity
When I say that she was like the shyest but most certain rose
That only blossoms in the gentle glow of the sun
Just before evening
When it knows its running out?
And that she came alive under the glow of love
Of others
For others
Like me
And all of you.
Like every single last one of us?

Ottessa Moshfegh is a writer whose 2015 novel, Eileen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Moshfegh was a close friend of Jean Stein and the final editor with Stein on her last oral-history book, West of Eden. They met in 2007.

Sandro E. E. Zanzinger, Ren Hang, date unknown. Courtesy: Klein Sun Gallery

REN HANG, WHOSE PICTURES PROMISED a now that felt like it would last forever, whose personal presence mirrored the undying present he created for his work, is gone. Flipping through his photobooks now feels not like an act of memorial so much as the reliving of a recent memory of something that may yet come to pass again. Ren will be consigned to history only with great difficulty, as his pictures fight to remain in the moment. The brilliance of his practice lay in the way he could persist in doing variations on one thing over and over again—photographing the nude bodies of young people in composed or natural positions—while keeping a high level of energy and producing images that always feel fresh. Everyone who has worked with him describes him in the same terms that circulate around his work: young, innocent, pure, free.

I can’t help but feel that Ren Hang is better appreciated by the art world now in death than he was in life. His photography is naturally appealing for followers of popular and youth culture, but there is also a depth and lightness to it that resides in the playful aesthetic touch he brought into an otherwise mundane creative world. When the “serious” art world had trouble digesting the work, which was written off as fashion photography for a time, they forgot that his focus on nudity meant that his shoots always transcended any efforts to turn them into advertising. Half embraced and half rejected by both the fashion system and the art system for this reason, he cultivated his own unique garden in the middle ground.

In the torrent of remembrances that have been published since Ren’s untimely death, far too many friends, colleagues, and fans have insisted on romanticizing the association between genius and depression. From the outside, Ren may have seemed to lead the perfect life: He had a keen eye, a beautiful social milieu, critical and commercial acclaim. Depression, as we know, can touch anyone, even those touched also by grace. His blog, My Depression, was a tool for coping, not an attempt to romanticize his own struggles. There is no romance in this struggle. I hope that we can remember him not only as an emerging aesthetic talent committed to a language of his own, but also as someone whose attempts at self-care were even pioneering at times, in a culture that fetishizes the opposite.

Robin Peckham is a Shanghai-based curator and editor in chief of LEAP magazine.

Jack Tilton, in Betty Parson’s Studio, Southold, LI, 1981. Courtesy Tilton Gallery, New York.

JACK TILTON’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO MY OWN LITTLE REALM, to the contemporary art of China, and to the rest of the world were quite profound. Jack was one of the New York gallerists who became keen on developments in China before anybody else did. His foresight there was just a small part of his astonishing ability to find artists who had yet to find wider renown. Marlene Dumas, David Hammons, Mark Bradford, Joep van Lieshout, Patty Chang, Fred Tomaselli, Francis Al˙s, and many other heavyweights showed with Jack long before they were famous.

I worked with Jack for six months in 1998. His gallery was in SoHo then, near David Zwirner. One of our shows, by “Heilman-C,” essentially comprised live porn, created by several couples, that audience members were invited to direct. There was a line around the block for that. For another show, Wang Peng brought his posse of Times Square portrait painters to the gallery to make portraits of the art world’s elite.

Jack was always open and generous. I had only worked with him for a few months when he took me to Venice, where many of his Chinese artists were exhibiting in Harald Szeemann’s seminal Biennale. After I left, he welcomed me back to his space to curate Tehching Hsieh’s first show in twenty years. He even lent me his credit card for my own art project. I paid him back, of course, but never really paid him back for all that he taught me.

While I worked for Jack, Xu Bing, Liu Wei, Huang Yong Ping, and Zhang Peili all mounted solo shows at the gallery. For a month, Xu enlivened the SoHo space with three live pigs that wore panda-bear masks and shat all over the place. They ruined the floors, and Jack would never stop complaining about it. He complained a lot, and artists would often leave, employees would leave, partners would leave. I left. But like many who passed through his doors, I also stayed close to Jack and always liked his no-nonsense, fuck-the-world attitude. He had a great eye, great passion, and a great sense of humor. Not everyone is blessed with a great temper. He would often joke that his Chinese name was “headache.”

Over the years, Jack moved the gallery from SoHo to Chelsea (and opened a partner space in LA before LA was cool) and then to the Upper East Side, where he bought a beautiful brownstone on Seventy-Sixth Street and continued to show many great international artists. I actually thought I’d see Jack in Basel next week, but while he had been successfully fighting Parkinson’s disease for many years, it was cancer that he finally succumbed to (according to his wife). Jack died on the first weekend of May, but he will live on in the memories of all that he touched. Rest in peace, my friend.

Mathieu Borysevicz is founder and director of the curatorial/consultancy firm MABSOCIETY, whose gallery, BANK, has operated in Shanghai since 2013.

Angelika Platen, A. R. Penck, 2003. Courtesy Galerie Michael Schultz.

A. R. PENCK WAS A CHARMING CHARACTER WITH A WRY, ironic sense of humor and an infectious smile that always seemed to embody the wit and complexity of his works. His truly exceptional role in the development of East German underground art (a term he claimed to coin) is still under recognized and under appreciated, even while his large-scale paintings, often prominently featuring his iconic elongated stick figures, have found widespread acclaim since the 1970s for a unique symbolic language that is both deeply expressive and highly conceptual. While his style is gestural and visceral, he was calculated, skeptical, and anti-ideological, as he objectively examined the conflicting systems—political, economic, social—present in his world. Due to his outsider position, Penck unabashedly and unknowingly bridged aesthetics that otherwise seemed at odds.

In East Germany, where he lived until 1980, Penck was not known by his world-famous pseudonym. Rather, he was Ralf Winkler, a precocious, gregarious, and vibrant conductor of the avant-garde art world. He lived and worked primarily in his hometown of Dresden—a city that the East German government still saw as a cultural center even after it had been heavily bombed by British and American forces in 1945 (when Penck was six years old).

Penck started making art as a teenager in the late 1950s, when he took an amateur painting class with Jürgen Böttcher (now known as Strawalde) at a local community college. Böttcher and his students became known as unofficial, nonconformist artists, and made work that stood in stark contrast to the exclusive program of state-sponsored socialist realism taught at art academies throughout East Germany. Learning about the history of painting from Böttcher, who invited pupils to his apartment in the evenings to flip through contraband art books and listen to jazz music, Penck found himself taken by the portraits of Rembrandt and the works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

In 1961, a twenty-two-year-old Penck helped Böttcher with the documentary Drei von Vielen (Three of Many), which chronicled the lives of three of Penck’s classmates as they worked at state-sponsored day jobs and painted or sculpted in their leisure time. Drei von Vielen made the controversial claim that a socialist citizen of East Germany could both hold an official state-sponsored job and be an artist. The film’s message of artistic “freedom” proposed an alternative to official culture, while its collaborative aspects—sharing art with friends and the community—showed how these artists could in fact reinforce the collective aims of socialism. At the end of the film, Penck makes his cameo: The movie’s three subjects visit their friend “Ralf Winkler,” in his in his apartment, to critique one another’s artworks. Winkler comes across as the most serious of the group—the painter, the critic. He presents the group a stark painting (now lost) of a burning building, in which people can be seen falling from windows and lying dead in the street. He explains that it is a depiction of the Allied bombing of Dresden, which he witnessed as a child.

Böttcher’s film—with its documentation of their private art circle existing productively within contemporary socialist society—was a seminal moment in the identity formation of Penck and his fellow nonconformists. While it is not explicitly stated in the film, the artists depicted were all part of a collective Penck called Erste Phalanx Nedserd, or First Phalanx Nedserd. (The group’s title included Dresden spelled backwards and played on Wassily Kandinsky’s famous Phalanx group.)

With the building of the Berlin Wall, the East German authorities cracked down on what they saw as dissident cultural activities, Drei von Vielen was banned, and Penck became known among officials as an instigator of avant-garde dissidence. He was denied entry into the Verband Bildender Künstler (East Germany’s state-sanctioned artists union) despite support by several Dresden artists and was consistently placed under surveillance and even harassed by the State Security Force (Stasi). But in 1965, Georg Baselitz, a friend of Penck’s who had managed to leave East Germany, covertly introduced the artist to West German dealer Michael Werner. The three met in a park outside East Berlin. Penck arrived with a suitcase full of paintings and drawings—unfurling canvases and shuffling through drawings for Werner to see. Werner, instantly impressed, went on to give Penck his first solo show in 1968 at Galerie Hake in Cologne.

A. R. Penck, Welt des Adlers IV (Eagle’s World IV), 1981, acrylic on canvas, 70 7/8 x 110 1/4”. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

It was then that the artist finally took on his pseudonym, after the German ice-age geologist Albrecht Penck. (The R stood for Ralf.) From that point on Penck’s international reputation only grew. Earlier in the ’60s, he’d begun creating paintings such as his famous Weltbild (World Picture), 1961, or Grosses Weltbild (Large World Picture), 1965. These interrogations of Cold War politics were shown in Western Europe in the late 1960s. As his story came out through these works critics and curators framed him as an anomaly in the East, a renegade painter, a loner trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Throughout this time in Dresden, he continued to play an integral role in the city’s unofficial art world. His contagious energy and vibrant personality drew people to him; he was always at the center of whatever activity was happening. Among his more revolutionary acts, Penck started the artist’s group Die Lücke TPT in 1971, which strove to locate art’s socialist, collectivist potential neither in its aesthetics nor in the impact of its dissemination but, instead, in the process by which it was made. The group’s name means “the gap”—referencing the void Penck saw in the sterile, noncollaborative world of official East German art, while playing on the Expressionist group Die Brücke. Members worked collaboratively, making dozens of communal abstract paintings, producing 16-mm films, and staging performances, often musical in nature (Penck was an enthusiastic drummer and was often seen at a piano—music was his other true passion). They publicized their events by giving handmade invitations to a select few and then letting word of mouth do the rest. Spontaneity was an important aspect of these events. Sometimes only two or three people came. Sometimes it was thirty.

In 1976, Die Lücke dissolved, in part due to the pressure of constant Stasi harassment, in part because it had run its course. Penck was forced to join the People’s Army for six months. Afterward, he left Dresden for the countryside to focus on his own work. That same year, another event shook the East German world of nonconformist art: Penck’s friend, the folk singer Wolf Biermann, was stripped of his citizenship. Outrage and fear ran through the arts community. Penck knew that his time in East Germany was likely limited. In 1979, his studio was mysteriously broken into and ransacked under circumstances that remain unclear to this day. He then applied for an exit visa—a long, uncertain, and stressful process. During this time, Penck made an artist’s book called Ende im Osten (End in the East). The drawings are dark, bold, and aggressive in nature. It is clear he is dealing with many emotions—anger toward a system that never accepted him and the imminent loss of a home in which he was no longer welcome.

On August 3, 1980, Penck left Dresden in the middle of the night, without any of his possessions.

Penck once said that “no one is spared from moving through society directly.” His statement describes succinctly his approach to both art and life. Whether he was secluded in East Germany or traveling the world, Penck was inevitably engaged in and with society’s systems. While rejecting the stylistic tenets of socialist realism and embracing abstraction and Expressionism, Penck and his fellow unofficial artists still remained skeptical that Western capitalism’s focus on the individual would be an adequate solution to the ever-present issue of postwar German identity formation; instead, they attempted to carve out their own artistic space within the oppressive system of socialism itself. During this time, Penck, like the figures in his paintings, straddled two realms—the precarious, secret world of underground art in East Germany, and the burgeoning postwar international scene in which he participated in absentia but where his works found such renown.

Hannah Klemm is assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and is currently completing her dissertation on A. R. Penck at the University of Chicago.