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Neo Rauch, Heilstätten (Sanatoriums), 2011,  oil on canvas,  98 1/2 x 118 1/4".

Neo Rauch, Heilstätten (Sanatoriums), 2011, oil on canvas, 98 1/2 x 118 1/4".

Neo Rauch

Neo Rauch, Heilstätten (Sanatoriums), 2011,  oil on canvas,  98 1/2 x 118 1/4".

Neo Rauch was born in 1960 in Leipzig, once a major artistic center despite the inhibiting strictures—propagandistic and utilitarian—imposed by the USSR on the art of the Eastern Zone. Yet these past two decades have seen Rauch rise from local star to international idol, owing to his virtuoso, ironic reworking of socialist realist tropes—a mode of considerable stylistic fascination especially following the fall of the Wall in 1989. When now seen, whether in the US or in Germany, Rauch’s paintings possess an incongruous punch quite different from that of works by East German artists who fled to the West before reunification. In the headiness of their escape, Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz struck out from the tabula rasa once forbidden to them, while Rauch, ever at home in Leipzig, continued to create large, illustrative figure compositions. But for all his skilled command, more than a touch of farcical camp attends his May Day romps—a seriousness that resists being taken seriously.

Since name is destiny, one is tempted to imagine that “New Smoke”—after all, that is what Neo Rauch means—would also have felt the need for a radical new beginning. Smoke is a loaded word in Germany, invoking as it does the lingering odor of the crematoria—an essential subject for Polke or Anselm Kiefer—and officious repression: Rauchen Streng Veroboten! (Smoking Strictly Prohibited!), for example, is a command particularly evocative of Germany’s authoritarian national character. But no reinvention overtook Rauch, save perhaps for a dose of comedic Surrealism.

Here, the offbeat spatial discontinuities typical of Rauch’s earlier work are now more illusionistically coherent, even if the near-distemper dryness of his painting still recalls both the stage flats of theatrical décor and the haranguing propagandistic billboard. In Fundgrube (Treasure Trove) (all works 2011), corny, invented “abstract” sculptures, and in Türme (Towers), curiously flat architectural elements project mockery toward other successful contemporary art, be it German or otherwise. Mixed-period costumed figures again proliferate: Ware (Goods) depicts draftsmen at work who may recall Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, or the burly supernumeraries of an Oktoberfest who somehow wandered into the canvas. In Türme, such stray fellows are contrasted with a brilliantly rendered rhinoceros-like creature (clearly referencing Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1515 woodcut of a rhino), while the painting’s architectural church steeples and towers—cartoon diagrams in the background—are slightly wicked put-downs of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s blunt photographs of industrial structures.

The iconography of Rauch’s new work references, in particular, that moment when the Northern Gothic elided into the German and Lowland Renaissance. This darker aspect is proclaimed by several depictions of women holding birds, as in his new large bronze sculpture of a woman holding a falcon, Die Jägerin (The Huntress). (A riposte to Jeff Koons’s Kiepenkerl, 1987?) These women evoke Dürer’s brooding Melancholia, 1514, or the witches of Martin Schongauer rather than a placid Athena as the incarnation of wisdom, for whom the owl is avian insignia. They certainly are not erotic. The creepier of these covens is in the Pieter Bruegel–like Aprilnacht (April Night), with its protagonists holding birds and masks of birds all marked by a striving Surrealist overreach that allies Rauch with the kitschy bird women found in late Max Ernst.

Clearly I both admire and mistrust “New Smoke” in his role as Till Eulenspiegel, the mischievous Till “Owlglass” of German folklore. These prankish new works are gathered here under the rubric “Heilstätten,” an archaic German word for sanatoriums—that is, places of healing, such as thermal baths. Rauch supplies images of such locales in the eponymous work, a large canvas that reads like a group of postcards strewn one beside the other. It may well be that these new compositions depict places of rationalist calm, quite like the tubercular resort in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), which offered solace to a Europe turned topsy-turvy by World War I—but I don’t think so.

Robert Pincus-Witten