The Metropolitan Museum of Art until September 23
1000 Madison Avenue at 82nd Street, 212-879-5500
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 24, 2007 under the heading “Where’s the Smoke?”
Like the eighteenth century German neoclassicist Anton Raphael Mengs, Neo Rauch seems to have been born with a prophetic moniker, or at least a name to live up to. While Raphael is the Renaissance master Mengs most clearly emulated, Neo is perfectly forenamed for an artist in whom, to paraphrase architectural theorist Charles Jencks, the wasms have become an ism. Mr. Rauch’s paintings, fusing elements of romanticism and realism from the last two centuries, resist the idea that anachronism and rejuvenation might be at odds with one another.
His bright and chirpy, skillfully executed, enigmatically jumbled costume dramas are the subject of a condensed show at the Met, in an inhospitable, bunker-like mezzanine gallery, the third in an annual series devoted to young(ish) contemporaries. His forebears, both Americans, were Tony Oursler and Kara Walker. The first foreigner in the series is one of the hottest stars of the international revival of traditional painterly technique. Painting with self-consciously hackneyed yet bravura panache, but in iconographically complex compositions, Mr. Rauch is a thinking person’s John Currin.
Emerging in the mid-1990s, Mr. Rauch stands at the head of what is dubbed the Leipzig School (other luminaries include Tim Eitel, Martin Kobe and Matthias Weischer) of artists centered around that city’s renowned Academy of Graphic Arts. Isolated by the East German regime from overt influences of contemporary art, the Academy offered a solid – if stolid – grounding sanctioned by social realism.
What makes Mr. Rauch something of an east-west divan (traditionalist and modernist) is the way he merges realist painterly language – whether exploiting familiar tropes or arising from inventive observation – with a collage sensibility. Even when his figures or scraps of scenery might not, actually, have been appropriated from a specific source, the inchoate jumble, the disaffection between figures, or at least their lack of organic connection, makes his paintings seem[end italic] as if they are collaged. While his self-professed conservatism keeps his oddball composition shy of the subversions of full-blown Surrealism, the incongruities in which he delights bring Max Ernst’s collage novels to mind. Similarly, his scenes are too overtly historical to share Pop Art’s critique or celebration of contemporaneous mass culture, but his chirpy, lush collisions of objects and scenarios can recall James Rosenquist.
The present show is titled “para” on account of the artist’s observation of a number of words dependent on that prefix: The paranormal, the paranoid. Mr. Rauch’s work reflects the two political extremes to the service of which the received language of realism submitted in Twentieth Century art – the libertarian, individualist and unconscious in Surrealism and the authoritarian, collective and conformist in social realism. Mr. Rauch’s ambiguous imagery comes across equally as whimsical and personal, on the one hand, and concerned with history and big philosophical ideas on the other. “The Next Move” (all 2007) is a triple pun in German, as “Der nächste Zug” can also refer to a train or a drag of a cigarette. The painting shows two young men in the antiquated garb of a college fraternity (white jackets with blue lapels) smoking and playing cards. To the left, a canopied table, with “PARA” inscribed on it, supports a painter’s palette, an open book, and other creative accoutrements. Figures lounging on a bed in the background could be an artist and his model taking an amorous break from painting and posing.
There is frequently a figure of an artist or an intellectual lost in reverie as strange events unfold around him, making these works at one level allegories of painting and its historical dilemmas. In “The Fugue”, a painting of approximately ten foot high by fourteen wide, this figure is reading, dressed in olden days costume, but seated on a contemporary moulded plastic chair. The shed behind him, with its graffiti, is also of our own time. Above him, dancing in the sky as if caught in the Rapture, are three figures, including women in a purple and a red dress that almost fuse, Siamese style, bound or separated by a flash of light. In the center of the composition, firemen, also in vintage attire, struggle with unwieldy hoses. There is no obvious fire for them to tend, but instead a bemused giant with defiant, burly features emerging, with a chain in one arm, from a caesura in the ground. On the horizon sits a dormant volcano.
Within his short career, Mr. Rauch has already undergone one very significant shift. His work of the 1990s borrowed from early twentieth century graphic illustration sources and gained both nostalgia and the frisson of dubious political provenance from this quality of printed propaganda. His palette tended towards the pastel while his brushstrokes had the neat, dry simplicity of graphic reproduction. His work of this period bore a striking resemblance to early R.B. Kitaj paintings derived from and basking in similar sources.
But recently Mr. Rauch has gone more painterly and more art historically referential. There are nods to Romantic forebears like Georg Friedrich Kersting in some of the more charming, smaller compositions. The more disturbing touchstones, stylistically, are National Socialist and DDR realists. While Mr. Rauch’s affinity with such sources is mitigated by his forceful sense of irony and enigma – qualities that were inimical to propaganda painting – there is a troublesome way, reflecting no doubt an intellectual pendulum swing from the strictures of the old DDR, that Mr. Rauch quotes liberally from writers who accommodated themselves to the Third Reich, like Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger, in his often cryptic interviews.
As befits a man named Neo, these paintings are – at least in initial impact – fresh, vigorous, intriguing and fun. But the more generalized old masterliness of these new works can seem meretricious, loosing the purposefulness of his earlier quotes of graphic sources. Also, it is the fate of the willfully anachronistic that, while trying to look older, they recall something more recent. In Mr. Rausch’s case, that would be the last go round with art historical retrofitting, the revivals of the 1980s. In particular, his portentuous period-piece jumbles are a dead ringer for the Scottish neo-expressionist Steven Campbell.
But these paintings are such rich, heady brews you really want to believe that their mystery is not mere mystification. An image like “Suburb,” with its flag burners amidst an ominously placed red missile in a calmly drab Mitteleuropa suburban street, or “The Flame,” with a man strapped to planks, dragging a pail of painter’s materials in his wake and marching in a way that forms a St Andrew’s cross, with a chemical-industrial flame on the horizon, have the viewer rooting for meaning. With all the flames amidst the mystification you can only ask, can there beRauch[end italic] (smoke) without fire?