Neo Rauch, Die Fuge, from the exhibition Neo Rauch: PARA at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
NEO RAUCH: PARA
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
MAY 22—OCTOBER 14, 2007
After decades of an incessant tumble into the ultimate depths of abstraction and the dematerialization of art, the reemergence of painting in the 70s and 80s was received by few as a return of the individual genius of the artist. The prevailing and ardent contention of critics like Buchloh, Crimp, and Lawson was simply that painting was dead. To paint was to regress since, to paraphrase, it had all been done before. Yet the German painters from this period, labeled “neo-expressionists,” met the critics’ animosity with new content impermeable to the most forceful objections. Rather than hide beneath the national veil of denial, painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Gerhardt Richter bravely confronted Germany’s ugly past with compositions evocative of fascism, the Holocaust and WWII, images burned into their memories and still very much alive in the international consciousness.
The new work of Neo Rauch immediately recalls such historical awareness. Raised in within the cultural stalemate of East Germany, it is easy to make connections to the retrospective statements of his fellow German artists, and yet one could posit a similar argument to that which met the neo-expressionists. Just as critics of the past thirty years claimed that painting was dead, it can be contended that Neo Rauch, too, has missed the boat in terms of commentary on Germany’s past. However, to discuss Rauch’s paintings in terms of political commentary alone would be to over-simplify his aesthetic and narrow his scope of influence, which in fact is vast. Though they are obviously autobiographical to some extent, his paintings posses an undeniable theatricality that borders on absurdity, lending an element of humor that belies the image of a melancholy child of fascism.
Die Fuge (2007) is a monumental composition that fuses landscape, architecture, figure and still life. In terms of association, as in all of his paintings, the possibilities are endless. A picturesque landscape dominated by a large mountain frames the irrational scene. A stray still life in the foreground tilts sideways, upsetting the illusionism in a manner similar to Cezanne’s apples. One of the wooden legs of the table has been replaced with an amorphous grey blob evoking connections to the melting forms that appear in Dalí’s famous surrealist works. In the middle ground a boy dressed in nineteenth-century garb sits at a table which again is supported by three wooden legs and a fourth that appears to be stiff crumpled drapery of acidic Mardi-Gras colors. These acidic colors appear once again in the yellow and green graffiti that is scrawled on the wall of the brick shed behind the boy. The graffiti is an unexpected touch of urban influence. While this could be a nostalgic reference to the forms that must have decorated the familiar Berlin Wall, it is more likely a playful touch of Pop culture which Rausch acknowledges as one of his many influences. Above the boy, two women and a man flail about in mid air with their eyes closed. Their dress and poses are reminiscent of the 1950s boogie culture that Rauch would have missed out on during the isolation of his youth. The main focus of the painting falls upon four uniformed firefighters in the midst of a Laocöon-like struggle with a hose. The firefighters seem to be attempting to extract a bearded man from a chasm in the earth. However, the man’s unconcerned visage contrasts with the bedlam which ensues because of his predicament. The lack of coherent narrative combined with the complete disjunction of parts, costume, color, emotion and gesture is similar to surrealist compositions in which the irrational world of dreams is portrayed through the rational means of painting. Yet, Rauch denies any use of the surrealist technique of automatism in his method, insisting that he carefully creates an environment where things can happen and then introduces his actors with only a vague concept of the mood of the painting and little notion of the outcome. While one could have a field day breaking down Die Fuge piece by piece, with a pre-set bias towards historical content, isn’t it sufficient to interpret the piece as an existential regurgitation of influences upon a stage that the artist has created exactly for this purpose? It would be egregious to completely disregard the artist’s background since all German painting is in some way political, but it would subtract from the irrefutable individuality that spills on to the canvas.
Die Flamme (The Flame) (2007) is a painting of a singular figure, again dressed in nineteenth-century attire, shown in stride with two long planks of wood strapped to his legs and holding two small, brightly-painted flags. The right plank is strapped to the back of the man’s leg while the one on the left is strapped to the front of the leg, while both of the boards rise to nearly twice his height. The man is caught in full stride with his right leg forward and left leg back. Because of the placement and size of the boards, however, this is the only position that the man could possibly be in without the planks hitting him in the face or from behind, thus making the act of walking, or progress, a hopeless Sisyphean endeavor. To reinforce his paralysis, the man is trapped in a shallow wooden trough filled with paints and measuring the exact length of his stride. Any image of man fixed to wood evokes religious connotations, and his suggested inertia is certainly evocative of the post-WWII inactivity of East Germany. The two unidentified flags which he holds support this notion of impartiality and loss. Yet the folly of the man’s situation overrides such a serious interpretation. In Die Flamme, once again, the scene is framed by landscape and architecture that includes a receding brick wall marred by bright graffiti tags. Dramatic color is employed again in the airborne flame in the background, serving as the only reference to the title of the piece. The man’s dated clothing and the muted landscape disconnect completely from the areas highlighted by eye-catching, unnatural colors. This trope recurs throughout the exhibition and contributes to the confusing disjunction of parts. When secondary gestures of intense acidic colors in the middleground and background aggressively contrast with the rest of the composition, the depth of space is contorted creating an uneasy viewing experience.
The art historical and political associations that can be extracted from each painting in the Rauch exhibit are ample. The eclecticism within a single painting has here been sorted out and no single interpretation seems satisfactory. It is precisely this ability to dodge categorization that separates Rauch from the neo-expressionists. The term “postmodern” crops up here. It is useful to look back on the writings surrounding another eclectic German painter, Sigmar Polke. The same arguments could be used for Rauch. David Campbell would claim that he is quintessentially postmodern because by using so many styles at once, the stylistic traits cancel each other out by coexisting. Thus Rauch arrives at his style through a negation of the intentions of the preceding styles which he calls upon. This interpretation seems overly pessimistic to explain Rauch’s Pop-sensitive palate. Kevin Power, on the other hand, would argue that Rauch is postmodern precisely because of this accumulation of style, and that it should be taken with a grain of salt, because of the consistent underlying parody in the works. In the end, what comes through is a self-mocking awareness of a generational consciousness of German artists who are still playing catch-up by an eruption of the styles that they were denied access to during their youthful seclusion.