Neo Rauch

In fourteen large works on paper currently exhibited at the Albertina, Neo Rauch continues to render the somnambulistic figures enthralled by enigmatic rituals that have occupied his paintings since the mid- 1990s. Buffeted by the artist’s signature abrupt changes in scale, as well as spatiotemporal and psychological disjunction, Rauch’s narrative tableaux are now more complex in color, narrative, and composition; his paintings’ dystopic beauty has become more alarming.

Rauch has regularly alternated between working on paper and canvas. Paper resists the brush less than canvas, limits overpainting and correction, and encourages greater speed and improvisation, often resulting in passages more provisional than those in Rauch’s works on canvas. Most of his works here, like those on canvas of the past two years, are executed with a brighter palette and stronger color contrasts than one is likely to find among the muted, often sour pastel shades of Rauch’s earlier paintings. Working on paper, he tends to limit his palette, as in Pfad, 2003, dominated by a uniform blue background, and Runde, 2003, in which delirious yellows and deep greens define figures and background alike.

Born and raised in Communist East Germany, Rauch—like the older East German Gerhard Richter—aimed to subvert his academic social realist training while still painting figuratively. He saw a slide show of work by young German neo-Expressionists (Salome, Rainer Fetting) in Leipzig in the early 1980s, but unlike many of his contemporaries he rejected such agitated gesturality. Francis Bacon’s paintings, seen on exhibition in Moscow a few years later, showed Rauch another solution, one in which the physical acts of making are less demonstrative and more in the service of a subject.

When the Berlin Wall fell, Rauch remained in Leipzig. A compassion for his environs, roiled by mining, fuels his lyrical dreamscapes, and one of the city’s many dilapidated industrial buildings houses his studio. The stillness of Rauch’s meticulous landscapes also reveals his admiration for Caspar David Friedrich; however, the ecstatic purity of Friedrich’s vistas has now been spoiled by modern industry. Friedrich’s isolated cross, signaling the landscape as altar, is a dysfunctional utility pole in Mammut, 2004. In Hinter dem Schilfgürtel, 2004, Rauch substitutes for a gothic church’s ruins the shambles of a factory. Rauch’s landscapes are now more luridly colored and more emphatically and variously disrupted by surreal growths and occurrences, whether punctured by mining drill bits or mutant outcroppings or threatened by lavishly poisoned skies. Unlike the salvation promised by the pristine vastness of Friedrich’s compositions, Rauch’s disjointed planes writhe with ambivalence.

Ambivalence also confounds Rauch’s figures. Their voluminous forms are imbued with heroic presence, but their sharp silhouettes and disproportionate sizes make them appear collaged into alien environments. In Prozession, 2004, two pomaded men in top hats and tails carry figurines, similar in miniature to other figures in the background. One of the figurines poses with outstretched arms, Christ-like. Whether these men are healers or malevolent magicians remains unknown. More numerous than in his earlier works, Rauch’s figures also appear in scenes increasingly unfathomable and often freighted with violence: a fistfight, a truck full of soldiers, bound prisoners, a chair leg morphing into a serpent, that strangles two green, grimacing gnomes.

The figures in many works might be surrogates for the artist. They look like laborers; but, like artists, their labors have purpose but no practical function. Or they could just be performing futile tasks. In Mammut, the large man wearing a fur vest and lugging a giant tooth or tusk and a handsaw seems bent on constructing something but is oblivious to or unable to help the wounded man dressed in a frock coat and breeches of another era, lying in the foreground. This figure reappears, with the same burden, in Hinter dem Schilfgürtel and again in Amt, 2004, together with other men carrying bulbous sacks out of a subterranean vault. The creation and imparting of light (a longtime literal and figurative topic of painting) is the subject of Trafo, 2003, yet here one of the paper lanterns being lit by the main figure seems to have ignited and become part of a nuclear cloud.

Rauch’s starkly silhouetted, oversize figures, and the vertiginous, stagelike spaces they occupy, owe a debt to Giotto (whose frescoes, seen on a trip to Italy after the reunification of Germany, deeply impressed him). Like Giotto’s subjects, Rauch’s figures pursue matters spiritual, their activities conducted by mysterious emanations of light. Entranced or stoned, they perform exotic rites, surrounding a morphing idol in Revolte, 2004, or surrounding themselves with narcotics: a basket of mushrooms in Pfad, a mandrake root in Konspiration, 2004. A spiralled, serpentlike staff, held by both the snowman in Runde and a figure struggling up a walkway in Pfad, may allude to the staff that Moses turned into a snake after striking water from a rock; perhaps Moses’s tool has lost its power or is being made to serve a new seer. Yet Rauch’s workmanlike figures are less the beneficiaries of spiritual powers than symbols of the end of modernist utopianism and victims of industrialization’s rush to progress. Seeking certainties no longer attainable, their labors are inconclusive and absurd.

In this it is useful to consider Rauch’s American peers Matthew Barney, Matthew Ritchie, and Kara Walker, who also came to prominence roughly a decade ago. In the wake of the breakdown of modernism’s imperatives, each takes cues from a lapsed tradition of history painting and develops complex narratives that run through multiple works. Rauch creates ambiguous and deeply seductive parables that scramble biblical, historical, and contemporary allusions. The new paintings here, as mysterious as they are lucid, evince a power not easily matched by anything else he’s made to date.

Klaus Kertess is a New York–based writer and curator. He has published monographs on Brice Marden, Joan Mitchell, and Peter Hujar.