New York

Neo Rauch

Neo Rauch’s latest suite of untimely painterly meditations is called “Renegaten,” a word that is similar to the English “renegades” but which also preserves a bit more tenaciously the idea of “reneging” on a promise or commitment. The title aptly expresses a tension in Rauch’s work between a bold iconoclasm that exposes the fallaciousness of figurative painting itself and a broody melancholia that confronts the broken promise of art to represent or transform life, a promise that demands restitution.

By now, Leipzig’s Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst’s prize pupil’s signature style is well known: the exquisite painterly composition of scenes that refuse to cohere in space or time; busy details that open out into echoing voids; recurrent characters or archetypes (the worker, the farmer, the soldier) that seem utterly detached from one another; drab or lurid color applied in a manner ranging from grand to stolid to whimsical all on the same canvas; and an imposing catalogue of influences (Bruegel, Delacroix, David, Max Beckmann, Max Ernst, Balthus, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Martin Kippenberger) overridden by a Soviet-era socialist realism perhaps too readily dismissed as merely ironic. While this exhibition of ten vast paintings, all from 2005, could hardly be said to have marked a significant departure from the emerging Rauchian canon, the individual canvases therein are more overtly theatrical and less narratively recondite than the artist’s previous work—though this still hardly makes them “approachable.”

In Lösung (Solution)—lest the historical valence be underestimated, Endlösung means “final solution”—behind the heavily draped window of a squat modern house in the country, a couple embraces or wrestles awkwardly while, outside, a group of anachronistic figures float under a twilit sky suggestive of Caspar David Friedrich. One is a youngish man in a sports jersey apparently taking a walk, arms behind his back. Flanking him on one side is an ancient, Moses-like figure, bare-chested, wearing a primitive skirt or loincloth with knee-high leather boots, and holding a white snake or spinal column in one hand as if to loose a plague on his enemies. On the other side, an older-looking version of the sportsman squats with hands tied behind back awaiting execution from a soldier or magistrate in Napoleonic-era clothing, who nonchalantly holds a gun to the prisoner’s head. In the bottom quarter of the canvas, behind a puke green iron-lattice railing that seems spatially disconnected from the rest of the scene, sits a modern-looking woman who appears to have discovered a lumpy dead body, beside which a saw—one of many unused bits of equipment in these paintings (reminiscent of Dürer’s “Melancholie” etchings, 1513–14)—leans against a wall. On the snake/spinal column in Moses’s hand, carefully stenciled in small neutral type, appears the word LÖSUNG.

The painting offers no readily discernible key to its own allegoricalness: Narrative fragments circulate without a punctum; distinctions between present, near past, and distant past seem flattened; scales shift. Yet while there is no homogeneously conceived historicism in Lösung, no “solution” to the paradoxes of power and powerlessness it evokes, history—meaning a sense of connection to the past, of living as part of a project, even a failed project—courses through every stroke (even the Polke-inspired squiggles). In this pitiless place, what has been and what is—ancient Egypt and the contemporary Middle East; Leipzig then, and then, and now—embrace and/or come to blows. That Rauch so vividly conceives of art as fundamentally connected to history, notwithstanding its inability to influence that history, is both his blessing and his curse. The pervasive sense of disgust in these paintings makes this clear, hence both the grandiosity and the self-laceration (doesn’t that kneeling athlete look an awful lot like the artist himself ?). Faithful to his name, which means “smoke,” Rauch seems to want to set it all ablaze, and this renegade spirit—the denial of self and art, of self in art—will help defend him against his ever-expanding circle of admirers.

Nico Israel