Neo Rauch

As part of the first generation since reunification, the Leipzig painter Neo Rauch (born in 1960) has taken up the challenge of the tensions inherent in contemporary German painting. In his work, citations of Pop art and abstract painting meet with elements of Neue Sachlichkeit and classical figuration. The result is a Chinese box filled with samples of many of the artistic trends of this century. But Rauch's constructions, rather than seeming labored, come across as humorous and refined.

His recent works heavily reference the working world, in the guise of machine shops, gas stations, offices, and factory buildings. But, unlike the heroic mural paintings of the GDR, Rauch paints the fantasies of socialist uprising as if they were on the dissection table. His scenes possess a completely distanced, even supercool atmosphere, and his utopian community of workers, the people manning the machines, reminds one of comic book heroes from another era. The rigidity of these woodcut figures stands in contrast to Rauch's carefully worked-out color schemes, which appear to follow with mathematical precision the Bauhaus theory of harmony. Despite the subtle transitions of color, the works remain angular, the sharply defined settings demarcated from the expressive gesture with which Rauch covers other parts of the canvas. This makes the general impression of the images barren and hard, though still leaving room for surrealistic effects. Inscribed on the blood-red or muted orange surfaces can be found words such as “Front” or “Model,” which function as signposts of faded myths.

Rauch sees his works as “dreams” turned backward, memories of a childhood in the '60s that had to be reformulated in light of the collapse of the GDR. In order to avoid a solely melancholy rapport with history, he ironizes the historical frame. Thus, in Tank, 1998, the entire collagelike composition of a gas pump near shrubs and factory towers is bordered by the kind of scalloped edge one normally associates with stamps or old postcards. For Rauch this kind of alienation from the realistic illustration also reflects his own training as an artist. He studied with Bernhard Heisig in the GDR who, despite his expressionistically fragmented treatment of figuration, was regarded as the best state artist. Rauch, in contrast, positioned himself obliquely to the Minimalism that dominated the new German painting (which has now crossed over to club culture). Against techno images and decorative ambience, Rauch sets a charged past. At the same time, his Pop citations distinguish his work from traditional historical painting. Only once does he get personal: His Unerträglicher Naturalismus (Unbearable realism), 1998, reveals, among other things, a man who has shot a shadowy figure full of holes with a rifle. The bullets are for a critic who wrote about Rauch's “unbearable realism.”

Harald Fricke

Translated from German by Diana Reese.