New York

Rainer Fetting

Marlborough | Midtown

German artist Rainer Fetting first gained international attention when his paintings were included in the blockbuster shows “A New Spirit in Painting” (London, 1981) and “Zeitgeist” (Berlin, 1982). He belongs to the German-Expressionist tradition, particularly as exemplified by Egon Schiele’s and Max Beckmann’s interest in portraiture. After moving from Berlin to New York in 1982, Fetting began to focus on the decadent, romantic figures who prowl the after-hours club scene.

This shift in subject matter not only indicates to me that Fetting has gone from being a promising young artist to a mature one, but it sets his work apart from much of the art world’s current concerns. In contrast to most neoExpressionist figurative painters, Fetting depicts individuals rather than types. In doing so, he jettisons the bombast that has long been an integral aspect of Expressionist painting, and was certainly evident in his earlier work. Instead of posing the artist as petulant hero, the superior sensitive individual, he proves that it’s even now still possible to recover humanist concerns, an accomplishment as unexpected as it is important. Fetting is a gifted, ambitious artist whose portraits are direct, provocative, and psychologically probing in ways that have been missing from painting since Alice Neel’s death in 1984.

The paintings range from full-length portraits to city- and landscapes. In the portraits, the interiors (often monochromatic grounds) are suggestive of artificial light and the hours between midnight and dawn. A subdued light sifts through the layers of transparent, viscous paint. Even at their most subdued, the light and color are still theatrical. Extreme moments of light, such as dawn, sunset, and late night, are also central concerns in the city-and landscapes. These paintings are as strong and particular as the portraits, and as in the portraits, Fetting’s concerns are not purely formal. Color—its light—is used to express a mood and the various emotions underlying it. This concern with light sets Fetting apart from Neel.

In both the three-quarters-length male nudes, with their backs turned toward the viewer, and the three-quarters frontal portraits, the artist uses color and the contrast between half-light and shadow to convey the individual’s sense of pride, vulnerability, aloofness, and isolation. There is nothing programmatic about his approach to the subjects. Rather, he finds ways to make his subjects present and compelling. As viewers, we become intensely interested in them and come to care about them because Fetting expresses his empathy for them through the medium of paint. Both his empathy and interest in the inherent drama of color and light set his work apart from Neel’s. His vision is distinctly his own.

John Yau