* Image courtesy Metroplitan Museum of Art * Image courtesy Metroplitan Museum of Art
On view are new paintings made specifically for this exhibition by the Leipzig artist Neo Rauch, one of the most widely acclaimed painters of his generation. Shaped by the experience of growing up in East Germany, Rauch's paintings teeter between Surrealism and popular imagery and defy easy interpretation. Viewers are drawn into scenes replete with historical figures in ambiguous landscapes. With a distinctive palette of bright acidic colors contrasting with deep shadows, the artist's paintings conjure up an atmosphere of confused nostalgia and failed utopias.
One of Germany's best painters makes a dozen new works for the Met.
By Howard Halle
Our quicksilver reporter was there (that's true)
Enjoy a four parts interview with Neo via YOU TUBE... | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |
Before I delve into Neo Rauch's show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an admission is in order: One of the reasons I'm drawn to his work—this is the fourth time I've written about it—is that, frankly, it appeals to my intellectual vanity as a critic. Indeed, his densely layered allegorical approach lends itself to all manner of Da Vinci–style code-cracking. But the truth is, trying to divine the grail in Rauch's oeuvre is a mug's game. The artist, who grew up in the former East Germany, claims that nothing he does is premeditated, that in fact his paintings, which mix Surrealism, Expressionism, Pop Art and the Social Realism of his youth, grow organically out of a kind of studio-born reverie. Whatever the process, in Rauch's hands, the daydream nation becomes a police state, where allusions are as omnipresent and impenetrable as the Stasi.
It's also worth mentioning that unlike John Currin, arguably his closest rival for the contemporary figurative painting crown, Rauch is not a romantic masquerading as a cynic. He's the real deal, albeit one whose painterly passions are tempered by conceptual restraint (perfectly reasonable, considering his country's unfortunate experience with runaway idealism). Of course, Rauch's work is admittedly the more formulaic of the two, but it's telling that this exhibit isn't a showy leap from previous efforts the way that Currin's recent outing at Gagosian appeared to be: Rauch has never needed to prove that he could paint. It's evident that he can, and that he's quite content to submit his art to the final verdict of the centuries, whatever those may be.
On that score, the Met makes a formidable jury room. Rauch is only the third artist after Tony Oursler and Kara Walker to tackle the awkward mezzanine gallery set aside in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for contemporary projects. He's filled it with 12 paintings created especially for the space. They eschew his usual large scale for easel-sized formats, and for long horizontal compositions that in this low-ceilinged environment evoke the gun-slit views from a bunker. A couple, like the peculiarly claustrophobic Para, feature figures sitting and staring at piano keyboards, as if they were searching for just the right note. Another, Vorort (Suburb), pictures a violent flag-burning in an otherwise sedate setting, suggesting the tribal irrationality that always threatens to shatter the calm of normalcy. If, as the wall text says, Rauch began this body of work as a meditation on museums, it ended up as something quite different: A discourse, perhaps, on the idea that individual creativity hangs in an uneasy balance with the destructive potential of history.
In this respect, two other, larger works—Vater (Father) and Die Fuge (The Fugue)—hanging just outside in an expansive sky-lighted room that contains some of the Met's postwar holdings, represent the alpha and omega of Rauch's intentions. Vater is a self-portrait of a youthful Rauch (who's now 48) as a 19th-century dandy looming like a giant over two smaller male figures. One is cradled in his arms, which oddly terminate in oversized Mickey Mouse hands, while the other stands intently in profile, taking photos of a vase and some candles on a table. Who are they? Rauch has said the first is his own father, who died shortly after the artist was born, but his features resemble those of the young Anselm Kiefer, while the snap-happy gent looks suspiciously like Gerhard Richter as he appears on the cover of his book, The Daily Practice of Painting. Is Rauch positioning himself as the mediator between the former's Expressionism and the latter's Photorealism? Is he claiming their work as his patrimony? There's no way to really know, just as there's no way to say for sure that Die Fuge, which pictures a comically inept fire brigade attempting to put out a dormant volcano, is some kind of comment on the cock-up that is Iraq.
In the end, it scarcely matters, since the terrible beauty of these paintings, with their unerringly dynamic compositional sense, and their Old Master–ish palette giving way to eruptions of acidic color, carries the day. Rauch titles this show "para," and the word even appears in several of the paintings. In English, it's a prefix that sometimes means "beyond" or "altered," and at other times, "to guard against." With this in mind, Rauch's invented world, strange as it is, can be seen simply as a redoubt against the real one.