Neo Rauch - Selected Press | David Zwirner

Neo Rauch

- Selected Press

Two things are immediately apparent when you look at the art of Neo Rauch: his technical skills are virtuosic and the paintings are consistently enigmatic. Visually, there is much to see. The paintings and large drawings are activity-laden; every character in his compositions is doing something, the kind of work that moves objects around but to no evident purpose and with no apparent outcome. Structures get built, costumes are put on, men and women pay rapt attention to what they are doing. But for the viewer nothing adds up to anything that could be declared a readable narrative. "Der Stammbaum/Family Tree", 2017, is a large oil on paper drawing that was included in “Neo Rauch: Aus Dem Boden/ From the Floor” at The Drawing Center in New York from April 11 to July 28 of this year. The title seems to allude to a confusing ceremony in which a single tree is being planted by a man dressed in red clothes, as is a couple who are holding red containers that might contain water, or might be shopping bags. Or, as a way of extending the meaning of the eponymous title, they could be members of a genealogical family tree. The shadows their bodies project onto the ground are swirling, dwarfish shapes, like contorted puddles. The planting in which they are participants takes place in a public space dominated by an odd piece of sculpture that draws the attention of four darkly dressed figures. A fifth figure looks back at us. He could be one of the picnicking men in Manet’s "Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe", 1863, except the situation we find him in is no frolic. Rauch is open to what he has elsewhere described as “the desire for risky encounters,” and his inclination is to stage disruptions in the work; the degree of that disruption can be everything from “a fine fracture” to “an act of violence.” "Der Stammbaum" is a measure of the former; "Sperre/Barrier", 2018, presents something of the latter. The painting includes a captive giraffe, an orator who stands on a wooden crate that is comprised of a roil of snakes, and a woman who is about to cast down a flag, with Old Testament zeal, on a hybrid man/snake whose world-weariness makes him a perfect victim. The colour of the flags the woman holds matches the edges of the wooden X-shaped barrier above him. In other paintings by Rauch this assembly becomes a surrogate crucifix, waiting for a man or a snake, or both.

This is conjecture; as viewers we are always in the position of trying to piece together a narrative that remains allusive. Rauch says in the following interview that he is on the lookout “for kaleidoscopic messages from the depths of my subconscious,” and he suggests that his imagination can best be characterized by the mycelium, the widely branched, underground mushroom. For him, “everything is connected.” Below the surface his mind forms “strange patterns and at crucial moments the compressed materials break through the crust and manifest themselves as forms.” He says that “a good picture should be timeless, suggestive and peculiar.” Using this definition, he makes very good pictures, indeed.

Rauch’s paintings and drawings always involve a story, but they don’t make available any of the conventional ways that we have come to understand what that story is. In a painting called "Vater/Father", 2007, a vaguely melancholic man, tidily dressed and holding in his arms a small-scale human being, stares off into space, while another man takes pictures with a small 35 mm camera. There are other paraphernalia on a table in the foreground: a vase, an armour breastplate, a cluster of four small votive candles and a meringue dessert. Beyond the foregrounded table is another table on which sit plated pie slices, and above them are four ornate letters that spell out the name of the exhibition: “para.” What is most peculiar is that while the three men appear to be the same age, they are all different sizes. The most conspicuous thing about the largest figure—presumably the father of the title—is that he wears a pair of ridiculous, cartoony yellow rubber gloves. He looks to be a compromised caregiver in the same way that the painter in "Parabel", 2007, who also wears floppy gloves, will have considerable difficulty in painting the way he wishes he could. Rauch suggests that the figure in the painting is a self-portrait whose specific condition says something about the life of the painter generally. “It is quite obvious,” Rauch says with absolute conviction, “that this calamity turns into a metaphor for a permanent dissatisfaction with the painterly process.”

Neo Rauch was born on April 18, 1960, in Leipzig, where he still lives. He is the best-known member of the New Leipzig School, a contested name assigned to a group of painters who studied at the Leipzig Art Academy, the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, in the late 1990s and who have since come to international prominence. He is represented by the David Zwirner Gallery in New York and by Galerie EIGEN + ART in Leipzig/Berlin.

Neo Rauch responded to a series of emailed questions on July 22, 2019.

BORDER CROSSINGS: In an interview in 2007 you talked about how pictures get made and you said you reach a point where you give the painting “the freedom to demand the addition of particular building blocks.” This is what a lot of writers I have interviewed say, that at a certain point the story or the novel starts writing itself. Does your painting, similarly, start painting itself?

NEO RAUCH: Yes, at a certain point I take a step back and follow the directions of the painting and try to fulfill its demands in a diligent manner.

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Browsing the drawings and other works on paper in Neo Rauch’s “Aus dem Boden/From the Floor” at the Drawing Center feels like flipping through a newspaper in a language closely related to, but not mutually intelligible with, your own. Once they’re framed in an exhibition, of course, they become finished pieces, but this German painter doesn’t necessarily make them with that in mind. They’re not specific studies, either; instead, he produces them as a kind of warm-up for painting, often throwing them to the studio floor when they’re done.

But Mr. Rauch renders, say, two men with palm trees growing out of their heads, or a durian-shaped bomb falling on a house, with almost neurotic precision. Together with the drawings’ elegantly askew composition, this sets up a tantalizing sense of specific messages or meanings hovering permanently just out of reach.

In a 1995 group of felt-tip-pen drawings, the unbridgeable contrast between black ink and white paper amplifies this dissonance till you can almost hear it buzzing. In a large oil like “Die Erwartung,” in which a horned artist meditates over a bowl of fruit, the same sense thickens into the narrow, firmly anchored feeling of closely observed detail, making for a portrait not quite of real life, but of the tonal quality of reality.

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Neo Rauch‘s canvases are dense panopticons, the figures he paints trapped in their own story, frozen in time among other lost souls condemned to the same fate. The stories the paintings tell are just as easily interpreted as misinterpreted: twisting roads that lead to haunted houses or burning furnaces, oversized beetles performing for or preying on their human companions, and often a stern-looking woman chastising an exhausted man hiding behind a canvas or hunched over a table with his head in hands.

“They come from my mind, my soul and therefore must be of me, but they are also not me,” their creator says, when we meet at his studio on the top floor of an old cotton mill in Leipzig, Germany. The 58-year-old Leipzig native goes on to describe how the pieces flow out of him, at times summoned through excursions or trips, such as a visit to Crete, and other times bubbling up from his childhood or seemingly thin air.

“I approach the canvas like a white haze. I spend hours, days, weeks meditating into that fog until the images start to surface in front of my eyes,” he says. “I often paint a figure over and over again, the shoulder or arms or head all need to be of a very specific weight and proportion before they are finished and sit perfectly in the frame — one figure could send the whole cosmos another way.”

Rauch says a “quick” painting could take around a year but it’s never as linear as that. And his studio definitely attests to the fact. The space is filled with canvases, some on easels, others stacked against walls, table legs, chairs. In fact, every available surface seems to be supporting a frame. There are also books, CDs, bottles of wine and whisky, and even a beautiful array of house plants. It’s every bit the studio you’d imagine, down to the thick crust of oil paint coating it all. The only rather uncanny fixture is a little pug, who dominates the space in a loveable way that reveals a hint of Rauch’s sweeter side.

When asked to explain his process, Rauch says, “In general my work bundles all the images, reflections and information into one stream of consciousness. I then occupy that particular point of internal and external influences, and react to that. I paint from that starting point always. That’s the moment when the image finds me.

“I’m a rather chaotic person and so the canvas tames my mind. My images reflect on narratives that I find inside me. They are somehow inconsistent and hence painting them gives them a form that holds a certain plausibility; saying that, they do keep me awake at night. They are a waking dream. I do see one consistent trope in my expression and that is that the form has to be legitimate and has to tame the pandemonium that is my internal landscape.”

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Neo Rauch is a German painter whose name literally means “new smoke”. Presumably when their son was born on April 18, 1960, his parents, both art students in what was then East Germany, wanted to celebrate a fresh start to family life. He can never be certain, however, because four weeks later they were both killed in a Leipzig train crash in which 52 other people also died.

Even if you knew nothing about his background, it is impossible to look at a Rauch painting without a sense of foreboding. He populates his work with grotesque beasts and old-fashioned characters engaged in the kind of quaint tasks – chopping, hewing, juggling – that feature in fairy tales. Somewhere in these disturbingly colourful visions there is often a figure who is oblivious to the danger that is about to strike.

Rauch’s subject matter means that he is usually described as a “surrealist” but his art feels too internalised to be truly surreal. Magritte could stand back, appraisingly, and make a pipe and a urinal witty; for Rauch, it’s up close and personal. The 2016 documentary Comrades and Companions begins with a lengthy sequence in which Rauch manhandles a huge canvas into his Leipzig studio. After a while, he gasps, “Where are the 30 assistants?” – a droll dig at some of his contemporaries like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

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The most dazzling of the Leipzig school of figurative artists talks about his mysterious paintings

Once upon a time in east Germany, two beautiful young art students had a baby boy. A month later they were killed in a train crash. The orphan was raised by his grandparents in a mountain village, and spent his days drawing and painting. As early as he could, he set off to the city to become an artist. Initially "a pariah, humiliated, ridiculed by curators and ignored by collectors", he began to enjoy success as east Germany grew more prosperous and outward-looking, and his career went global when he was hailed in New York as "the painter who came in from the cold". His first exhibition in London opened this week.

That is the life story of Neo Rauch, most dazzling of the Leipzig school of figurative artists who emerged in the decade after the Berlin Wall came down. Even his name, with its implications of a new fire in art—"Rauch" means smoke in German—has mythic overtones, and his large-scale, busy paintings, with arbitrary shifts in scale and skewed perspectives, look like illustrations to fairy tales.

On the walls at David Zwirner gallery there is a giant with fire at his back striding through sulphur skies over castles and chimneys ("Der Brandmeister"), an upside-down unicorn washed up in a market square ("Zustrom"), an ostrich with a human head and another wearing trousers and shoes strutting through a medieval fair ("Forderung") and an assortment of jesters in horned hats, mermaids, angels, windmills and country cottages. Colours are at once fanciful and muted, like those in faded children's picture books. Disquieting scenarios defy realism or even coherent narrative readings but, as in fairy tales, are psychologically convincing and treat life's big themes: destiny, endeavour, power, betrayal, fear.

In person Rauch, 56, tall, handsome with classical features and a sober, thoughtful manner, does not disappoint. In a purple painting called "Der Auftakt", where the still, urgently engaged figure of a painter sits at an easel amid crumpling towers, musicians clashing cymbals and a winged man in top hat, I think I see a self-portrait. Surfaces are lively, beams of light strike the figures, giving a baroque dynamism and clarity, yet something about the stagy monumentality also brings to mind the awkward clunky heroes of socialist realism.

I ask Rauch where his images come from, and he looks immediately anxious.

"Who knows? It's better not to know! It's not easy to replenish the stock of images within."

Rauch works alone "from my inner ground", painting directly on to panels, with no preparatory drawing, and "develops a kind of centre, a glowing point, from which the energy waves stream out and force me to act. There is a point where the picture is itself and has a kind of existence as a creature. Then comes the stage where I am just a craftsman: I have to decide how tall this figure should be, for example."

He points to a burly character in a pronged hat in the fantastical magenta and green "Der Störfall", starring a beanstalk, torch-bearers, a cloaked figure with a camera. Why the costume drama?

"I'm trying to find a way to bring my figures in safely. They are in a certain sense contemporary, but through costumes that are out of time, I try to protect them from overbearing contemporary influence, from people who bring their own interpretations—for example, political meanings. On the other hand you can feel the impact of my preoccupations." He mentions among these the Brothers Grimm and Wagner's Lohengrin.

When Rauch presented narrative paintings at his first show, in Leipzig in 1993, it was "a commercial disaster, no one was interested in painting, it was installation and video that was hot". But painting since childhood had been "my way of appropriating the world, my playing, and I stuck with it." At art school in the German Democratic Republic, figurative painting was the norm, as throughout the former Soviet bloc.

"It was the opposite of the spirit of enforced modernisation in the west, it was the old-fashioned way of education, that was obviously good, because at that time in the west painting was declared to be dead. Max Beckham, born in Leipzig, was always one of our idols in art school. Socialist realism hadn't been a subject since the 1950s, it was very much freer there than was imagined from the outside, with the exception that non-figurative painting had no influence. That made Leipzig unique and great."

The hinterland of dowdy provincial former eastern Germany is palpable in his eerie atmospheres, within a sophisticated international language drawing on Beckham's expressionist mythologies and surrealism’s disjunctions of scale and context. At a time of global over-homogeneity, his popularly may stem from the distinctiveness of the local approach. His work seems to me emphatically German.

"What's German is a certain absence of elegance," he agrees. "Dürer was not elegant either. And there's a certain inward-lookingness, soulfulness. I have come to terms with a kind of fossilised way of looking—like a dinosaur."

Out of time is also timeless, I venture.

"It is about trying to make timeless pieces, but it's only a try, not a guarantee." He shows me the final, most recently completed, weirdest work in the show, "Das Gegenüber" ("The Opposite"). In a pinkish-brown tonality, two heads, one with horned ears, the other with a beard tapering into horns, confront each other across a table. The first is a puppeteer, animating a pair of glove puppets to fight with swords across the face of the second. "That may indicate an inside struggle he has to fight," explains Rauch. "It's about splitting in two. The German word for doubt is 'Zweifel'—it contains the word 'two' ('Zwei'). Nothing is as it seems to be. These are not nonsensical paintings, they can't be interpreted just in any way, they are based on a stringent meaning."

Then this articulate, fraught, original painter apologises for "speaking in a halting way" about compositions which "I've painted, and I think their origins are based on an internal logic, outside cerebral aspects. Painting is to me a second skin, everything I want to express has to come through this skin."

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Neo Rauch has all but cornered the market on post-modern historical painting. While his histories don’t overtly present as such, he does thread a specific temporal narrative (German, idealist) through what one might describe as the hangover dream of the repressed nation-state. The nation-state haunting here is the former East Germany, a state cornered by its political designation, one aligned to Cold War socialism and the social realism that became the sanctioned genre of that limited corner. Rauch doesn’t go about incorporating his experience like some of his older forebears, Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke; they, like him, grew up in the East and plotted their aesthetic self-creation from a point of departure left over from official culture. Rather, his approach represents a return to a kind of figuration that Richter and Polke most probably eschewed as being too close to the official social realist style. Rauch seems unafraid to go there simply because historical distance may have made it palatable again for his own generation, for whom the style most likely became, ironically, more of a pop idiom.

Rauch’s cast of dimly characterized figures in this new series of paintings includes soldiers, village festival goers, workers, shopkeepers, students, businessmen, craftsmen, matrons, politicians, professors, and fools—in short, almost every category of citizen to make up a potential working social order. All of the elements are there, but the artist scrambles them in a virtual anarchy of figural gestures displacing the suspension of political belief needed to coalesce such an order. One is left wandering in these paintings, navigating the lack of clear narrative between heraldic slugs, somnambulant boatmen, sickbed protagonists, hunched crones and hulking giants, sportive clerics, thoughtful sculptresses, and scarlet maids born of flayed fish. These characters all collide in scenarios underscored by the detached assumptions of shared dogma central to medieval morality and passion plays, rather than a more modern, Shakespearean pathos that might lead one to actually identify with some of the enacted scenes. The lack of any given belief in the artist’s peculiar, post-post-modern metaphysic allows for surrealistic free association while keeping his absurd scenarios uncannily generic.

Rauch’s painterly technique supports this disenchanted surrealism with clay-like drawing and modeling, extreme shifts between the grisaille and complementary color structures, and impossible perspectival transitions made plausible by the artist’s brilliant knack for smoothing these compositional ruptures, maintaining a haptic sense of the whole. It is his talent for adumbrating the gestalt of painting’s formal elements that creates the real sense of belief in these works.

Most of the paintings in "At The Well" are very large, appropriate to the scale of ambition of a post-modern Courbet. Rauch, like Courbet, assembles large ensemble casts put to allegorical purpose. One thinks of the older artist’s “Burial at Ornans” (1849 – 50) or “The Painter’s Studio” (1854 – 1855) when considering Rauch’s similarly overcrowded pictures. Like Courbet, too, Rauch sublimates the narrative thread of woman as mother/earth/goddess. Consider “Der Blaue Fisch” (2014), a painting that depicts a patriarchal figure helping a fully dressed woman out of a wound in a large, freshly caught fish. He is aided by a flaying fishmonger and attended by a punting canal man. It’s a flat-footed, secular “Birth of Venus” (1485 – 87) in an acrid red, green, and yellow landscape of windmills and humble cottages evoking Old Europe. This event draws the attention of the rest of the workaday village, effectively crowd-sourcing the mysticism of a quotidian epiphany. In “Skulpteurin” (2014) another female protagonist, this time more matronly and less passive, mounts a ladder to sculpt a monumental female form in flesh-colored stone. A small maquette of the sculpture stands on a pedestal nearby while drone-like artisans in guild caps stand ready to hand the sculptress her tools. In both of these paintings, Rauch comes closer to a clear allegorical statement than in most of the other works in the show. While Courbet may have coded his allusions to a presiding feminine spirit in works such as the gushing cave of “The Source of the Loue” (1864) and the centralized open grave in “Burial at Ornans” (1849 – 50) Rauch makes explicit the role of the woman as both the passive object of fascination and active maker of worlds. The exhibition’s title, "At the Well", might be connected to “la source” (1868) but in Rauch’s case more towards a nationalistic wishing than an elemental wondering.

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Orphaned Since Infancy, the German Painter Follows in His Artist Parents' Footsteps

When the German painter Neo Rauch was six weeks old, his parents left him with his grandparents and boarded a train to art school in Leipzig.

Within hours, the train had crashed, and their infant son was orphaned. Surrounded by their charcoal drawings, his earliest impulse was to create art.

"The artwork of my parents encircled me," said Mr. Rauch, now 54 years old, at his Leipzig studio. On the wall, a photograph of his mother watches over him, unable to answer a question that has always puzzled him: "How did they even pick 'Neo' as my name?"

His first work, at age 2, was a cheery woodpecker. Half a century later, he is best known for large-scale renderings of his daydreams.

Sixteen of these paintings and one etching appear in "At the Well," a solo exhibition opening Thursday at David Zwirner Gallery, part of Mr. Rauch's efforts to make himself better known in New York and outside Europe after a 2007 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The enigmatic, 10-by-8-foot painting "At the Well" portrays a conversation between a towering man in a World War II-era helmet, another man riding a horse bareback, and a woman in a purple dress. Nearby, an elderly beggar and a man wearing a goldenrod suit and top hat watch. The depiction is given a menacing tone through storm clouds and a naked, androgynous figure lurking in the background on a pedestal, its face obscured by a black mask.

Landscapes are usually the only realistic elements in Mr. Rauch's works, often modeled on the Aschersleben countryside where he grew up. The disproportionate sizes of his figures is intentional, a consequence, he said, of avoiding models, reference points or advance sketches on canvas.

"That doesn't mollify me," he said. "Doing that would lead to something that amazed the canvas, but I wouldn't have full ownership of the idea."

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Neo Rauch was born in 1960 in Leipzig, once a major artistic center despite the inhibiting strictures—propagandistic and utilitarian—imposed by the USSR on the art of the Eastern Zone. Yet these past two decades have seen Rauch rise from local star to international idol, owing to his virtuoso, ironic reworking of socialist realist tropes—a mode of considerable stylistic fascination especially following the fall of the Wall in 1989. When now seen, whether in the US or in Germany, Rauch’s paintings possess an incongruous punch quite different from that of works by East German artists who fled to the West before reunification. In the headiness of their escape, Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz struck out from the tabula rasa once forbidden to them, while Rauch, ever at home in Leipzig, continued to create large, illustrative figure compositions. But for all his skilled command, more than a touch of farcical camp attends his May Day romps—a seriousness that resists being taken seriously.

Since name is destiny, one is tempted to imagine that “New Smoke”—after all, that is what "Neo Rauch" means—would also have felt the need for a radical new beginning. Smoke is a loaded word in Germany, invoking as it does the lingering odor of the crematoria—an essential subject for Polke or Anselm Kiefer—and officious repression: "Rauchen Streng Veroboten!" (Smoking Strictly Prohibited!), for example, is a command particularly evocative of Germany’s authoritarian national character. But no reinvention overtook Rauch, save perhaps for a dose of comedic Surrealism.

Here, the offbeat spatial discontinuities typical of Rauch’s earlier work are now more illusionistically coherent, even if the near-distemper dryness of his painting still recalls both the stage flats of theatrical décor and the haranguing propagandistic billboard. In Fundgrube (Treasure Trove) (all works 2011), corny, invented “abstract” sculptures, and in Türme (Towers), curiously flat architectural elements project mockery toward other successful contemporary art, be it German or otherwise. Mixed-period costumed figures again proliferate: "Ware" (Goods) depicts draftsmen at work who may recall Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, or the burly supernumeraries of an "Oktoberfest" who somehow wandered into the canvas. In "Türme", such stray fellows are contrasted with a brilliantly rendered rhinoceros-like creature (clearly referencing Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1515 woodcut of a rhino), while the painting’s architectural church steeples and towers—cartoon diagrams in the background—are slightly wicked put-downs of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s blunt photographs of industrial structures.

The iconography of Rauch’s new work references, in particular, that moment when the Northern Gothic elided into the German and Lowland Renaissance. This darker aspect is proclaimed by several depictions of women holding birds, as in his new large bronze sculpture of a woman holding a falcon, "Die Jägerin" (The Huntress). (A riposte to Jeff Koons’s "Kiepenkerl", 1987?) These women evoke Dürer’s brooding "Melancholia", 1514, or the witches of Martin Schongauer rather than a placid Athena as the incarnation of wisdom, for whom the owl is avian insignia. They certainly are not erotic. The creepier of these covens is in the Pieter Bruegel–like "Aprilnacht" (April Night), with its protagonists holding birds and masks of birds all marked by a striving Surrealist overreach that allies Rauch with the kitschy bird women found in late Max Ernst.

Clearly I both admire and mistrust “New Smoke” in his role as Till Eulenspiegel, the mischievous Till “Owlglass” of German folklore. These prankish new works are gathered here under the rubric “Heilstätten,” an archaic German word for "sanatoriums"—that is, places of healing, such as thermal baths. Rauch supplies images of such locales in the eponymous work, a large canvas that reads like a group of postcards strewn one beside the other. It may well be that these new compositions depict places of rationalist calm, quite like the tubercular resort in Thomas Mann’s "The Magic Mountain" (1924), which offered solace to a Europe turned topsy-turvy by World War I—but I don’t think so.

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