New York

Neo Rauch

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“His art is uniquely his own because it springs from his dreams.” So claims the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s introductory wall text for German painter Neo Rauch’s recent exhibition “Neo Rauch at the Met: para,” a show installed in the gallery where the museum has lately begun exhibiting contemporary artists (Rauch’s is the third installment, following Tony Oursler and Kara Walker). Thus Rauch, the most prominent of the Leipzig painters, is implicitly aligned by the Met with the Surrealists whose work hangs just a few rooms away (their imagery was also, notoriously, determined by the subconscious). But the juxtaposition is precarious; it disregards arguably more significant influences, primarily Sots Arts’ caricaturing of the uncritical celebration of Soviet communism, but also the stylings of his elder countrymen Jörg Immendorf, Sigmar Polke, A. R. Penck, et al.

Mostly purged from “para”’s fourteen canvases is the overt strangeness on which Rauch has forged his reputation. Though bright colors do appear throughout, an autumnal palette of yellows, reds, and browns dominates, imbuing the majority of these paintings with the look and feel of fading memories, evocations of the past. While in the past Rauch’s imagery often conjured the idealized industrialized world depicted in midcentury East German and Soviet propaganda, here he reaches further back; the works feature figures and mise-en-scènes that mostly seem plucked from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, although iconography of a more recent vintage occasionally materializes too.

Sometimes Rauch’s past is laced with the transcendent, as in Gold Mine (all works 2007), in which peasants labor near a hypnotically shimmering crevice in the landscape. Occasionally it roils with unrest, as in Vorot (Suburb), with its flag-burning sidewalk crowd. It seems these works are really more socialist realist than Surrealist, and the temptation is to wonder whether the push and pull of two poles of political propaganda—country as a territory of plenty versus the idea of a homeland cast as a theater of and potential perpetrator of oppression—constitute some kind of commentary on the political structures of Eastern-bloc socialism, which Rauch was raised under until the reunification of Germany in 1989. Zones of wet-on-wet abstraction appear in several of these canvases like areas that have been fogged by the gradual erasure of memory, maybe even censored.

“On my canvas, as in my mind, anything is possible,” Rauch quips in the wall text, deftly issuing himself carte blanche. Specificity of signification has never been his bag, but nearly all of the paintings grouped here articulate variations of power and paranoia, the dueling psychologies of the oppressed and the elevated. In Master’s Pupil, a student absorbs his teacher’s expertise as he bangs confidently away at a piano. In Paranoia, three people in an oppressive green room fixate on a shrouded painting, apparently terrified by what might materialize. Para, one of two very large horizontal-format paintings crammed into this relatively small space, depicts four protagonists. A handsome dandy broods over a piano while his doppelganger peers around a corner at a man and a woman; she clutches a cello as he draws aside a curtain to peer into a space the viewer cannot see. State-sanctioned socialist realism glorified the subject’s participation in communal activity. The suspicion, voyeurism, and fear so obvious in Rauch’s characters show that they crave a social existence that remains unavailable to them in this domain of repressed and polarized relationships.

Nick Stillman