New York

Neo Rauch

When Neo Rauch’s parents were killed in a train crash, Rauch was six months old, and his father had just entered art school. Rauch has no idea why they chose his unusual name, but the suspicion that some sort of wry art inflection was intended seems, at least in retrospect, tempting. As a prefix, neo has a double-edged quality, a suggestion of both cynicism and freshness, which Rauch’s artwork exuberantly fulfills. His earlier paintings, with their military hardware and cartoon balloons, read as diffuse satires of the East German regime under which he grew up. Rauch’s second New York exhibition, however, reminded us that his paintings are much more than sardonically recycled propaganda. Now more than ever, Rauch delivers an art that feels new, not in its premises but in its vitality.

The nine canvases here featured absurd theatrical scenes set in composite locales—storefronts, TV studios, classrooms,and landscapes. In Hatz (Chase; all works 2002), a team of flying hockey players in Bavarian drag—green feathered hats, long green coats—pursues a giant color-coordinated slug across a frozen pond. Or is the slug in fact a metamorphosed teammate? Rauch delights in such teasing narrative cues, and he delivers them with a beguiling stylization. Skittering highlights give the slug’s body a kind of glistening tumescence. Similar flashes zigzag across the men’s coats and boots, the ice, the snow-frosted factories in the distance. It’s as though the whole tableau has been coated in some kind of spray-on rainproofing.

Everywhere in Rauch’s paintings there’s this giddy thematization, a repeating and varying of seemingly incidental details. In Kühlraum (Refrigerated room), fluorescent fixtures overwhelm a bakery. In Schöpfer (Creator), the black beards of two gesticulating philosophers sprout from the chairs they sit on. Only in HausMeister (Caretaker), in which a stack of plates rhymes with the gooey strata in a geology poster, does the repetition feel like formalist cleverness. Most of the time it’s as if the paintings can’t help themselves—their recursive weirdness is Rauch joyriding.

Meanwhile, his touch seems to be changing. Whereas the canvases from only a few years ago had a graphic dryness, like rendered versions of photocollage conceits à la John Heartfield and R.B. Kitaj, here the forms appeared wetter, more palpable, less “referenced.” The implicit traditionalism of this approach culminates in a landscape called Acker (Field), one of the show’s highlights and one of its most puzzling moments. Masterful and uncharacteristically sedate, Acker is a close-up view of red dirt furrows and distant trees, skewed only by four tiny, unnaturally yellow vines—an ordinary motif tweaked into faintly sinister freshness. Does Acker signal a shift in Rauch’s aims? More likely it’s evidence that he’s limbering up. The context for most of these new paintings seems less cold war–ish, less narrowly East German, as if Rauch is looking beyond his identity as a member of a transitional generation. By now it’s hard to think of a contemporary figurative talent so wholeheartedly avant-gardist, prolific, playful, and unembarrassed. The closest thing to a kindred achievement might be the theatrical productions of the designer-director Richard Foreman, with their maddening frivolity and beauty, their relentless but always abortive narrativity. Like Foreman, Rauch has the kind of rare, manic virtuosity that can make a middle-aged medium look—if not new, at least intoxicatingly light on its feet.

Alexi Worth