The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York May 22 – September 23, 2007
As hermetic artists whose paintings pull the viewer inside, both Neo Rauch and Ad Reinhardt would likely agree on one thing; all art is political. Ranging in scale from the epic and panoramic to the small and intimate, twelve of Rauch’s fourteen paintings have been crowded together in a low-ceilinged room meant for works on paper, with all the grandeur of a suburban garage converted into a playroom. The two largest paintings, Die Fuge (2007) and Vater (2007), however, are in the large, high-ceilinged main room where they hang opposite one of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits of Mao, and near a Warhol “hammer and sickle” painting. Had there been one of Gerhard Richter’s photo-based paintings next to Warhol’s Mao, a lively dialogue could have ensued. However, the paintings in the Met’s collection that are closest in spirit to the Rauch, portraits by Lucien Freud and Alice Neel, were more of a detour in terms of both scale and subject matter.
If you happen to have not been paying attention to the art world for the past few years, Rauch is a central figure in the Leipzig School, a loosely related group of painters who are between their early thirties (Tim Eitel) and late forties (Rauch was born in 1960). Beyond studying in Leipzig, what distinguishes these painters as well as sets them in direct and conscious opposition to an older generation, particularly Gerhard Richter and those he has influenced (Luc Tuymans, for example), is summed up by Rauch’s declaration of independence: “I do not work from photographs.” While Rauch’s rejection of the mediated image as a source has left him open to the charge of being a conservative painter, a term that he himself hasn’t rejected, one should see his decision in light of postwar German painting and America’s codifying of it. For all of his greatness, Richter is neither the culmination of painting’s advancement nor proof that art history conforms to a model of progress, especially the ones devised by art theorists who believe that they are gods burdened with instructing us mortals on how to achieve aesthetic salvation. Like the neo-cons in the White House, the neo-Kantians in universities issue decrees as if they embodied the Truth. Full of platitudes and pronouncements, both groups are divorced from real life.
For Warhol, both Mao and the hammer and sickle are bodiless: empty signs rather than palpable things. His paintings do not speak of time and history, but the ease with which we can become voyeurs fascinated by the media. Survivors, we are unscathed by the death and suffering of others. Rauch is also interested in survivors, of which he is one (born in East Germany in 1960, before the Berlin Wall was erected, he first gained attention as a painter after the Wall was taken down), but contemplates the cost. His recent paintings are staged dramas in which the largely male cast is dressed up in uniforms and frocks, clothes we associate with the 19th century, the heyday of Romanticism and the growing belief in heroes and individualism. The uniforms suggest the opposite; as individualism was on the rise, so was nationalism and militarism. Painted for this exhibition, almost all of the paintings contain the letters PARA floating somewhere in the composition. As an English prefix, para means beside, near, along with, and brings to mind terms like paradox, paramilitary, paramour, paranoid, paranormal, paraphasia, parapsychology, and parataxis.
Since the early 1990s, when Rauch began exhibiting gritty, poster-like oils on paper, he has often included a word or phrase in the composition, and, in some cases, an empty thought balloon—a juxtaposition deriving from both cartoons and Soviet-era posters exhorting the “people” to collective action and glory. The individual and the state had become one, and the heroic ideal was still alive, albeit in a different form than found in a capitalist society. While many critics suggest that Rauch’s paintings comment on the failures of Soviet Communism, that seems the easiest, most self-serving (or American) way to look at them. I think the bigger issue that Rauch is tackling in his recent work is how to paint a history painting in a post-historical period, when all narratives of progress have been called into question. His interest in etymology is consistent with this ambition, as the origins of a word and the changes in its usage that inevitably take place over time, tell us a lot about culture, its prejudices and shifting world outlook. “Para” asks us what we are “near, beside, or along with.” What are our proximities and how have they influenced us. Or, to be gloomier yet more precise about it, what habits of thinking and language are we trapped in? And how have we become complicit?
Responding to these questions in his work, Rauch has refused to develop a style, slowly articulating a palette of grating colors in which opticality, harmony, and anything evoking French painting is notably absent. He doesn’t bring his paintings to a state of finish or even cover his tracks. While it is clear that he can be relatively deft with a brush, he is often crude and awkward, like his figures. Buttons on a coat are colored smudges, while faces are often stuck in paint’s malleable matter and fail to emerge into pictorial clarity. The eyes are the other disturbing feature; they are either seemingly blind or not painted in. People stare, but they don’t appear to see what is right in front of them. We are witnessing a scene from an unnamed play in which everyone is blind, a frozen moment with no sense of what preceded or what will follow. They exude impotence in the face of what to do next.
Rauch’s ambition is stubborn and oppositional. In her New York Times review (June 15, 2007), Roberta Smith argued that he had “deliberately…set back the clock, not only in terms of history, but in terms of his development.” In his earlier paintings, the compositional method was collage, with the predictable result being a schematic space full of disruptions and shifts. The figures were flat and silhouette-like. The muted palette evoked the industrial decorativeness of the Soviet era. In short, everything Rauch did was suitably postmodern, but not, like many of his peers, ironic. His earnestness, if that is what it is, led to accusations of being humanistic. So what caused him to stop doing the right thing? Certainly it wasn’t nostalgia for his East German youth before unification brought its own share of problems.
My sense is that, like Philip Guston, Rauch wants to reinvent painting for himself, hence his refusal to use photographs or settle into a style. Add to his refusal his claim that his paintings come from his dreams, and one senses his commitment to getting himself off of all the accepted paths painting has followed. Since around 2002, he has been trying to articulate a unified, non-collaged space without resorting to academic or schematic models. He wants, as Guston did, to put the stuffing back into the mattress. The rather simple Spåher (2002), which shows a soldier crouching beneath a mushroom, is an early example of this. Rauch seems to be asking himself these questions: Can one introduce disruptions that are integral to the painting and yet feel neither pasted on nor the result of a visual gimmick (David Salle)? Can one be both crude and sophisticated without becoming programmatic (Albert Oehlen)? Can one make paintings of clumsy, awkward, ugly people without feeling superior to them (John Currin)? Can one interrogate the figure of the painter and the trope of the artist-hero (Philip Guston)? As Guston seemed to be asking when he depicted a hooded man pointing at his self-portrait on an easel, can you point fingers at yourself, rather than at others (Leon Golub)? Can you be neither judge nor victim?
In the “Para” paintings, Rauch reexamines the Romantic era when the ideal of the male artist-hero was born. Whether sitting before a piano, holding a camera, or pondering a book, the isolated figures are surrogates for the painter. In Am Waldsaum, a kneeling man adjusts his crossbow, a medieval weapon superseded by the English longbow. Beside him, a young woman in green stockings and green skirt appears to be holding a cello case. They are in the midst of a walk, and both have their eyes closed. Might not the crossbow, a potent but obsolete weapon, be Rauch’s allusion to a paintbrush? It’s as if the artist attempted to synthesize Corot and Balthus while holding a paintbrush with a boxing glove, refusing the Kantian ideal of beauty. Didn’t Richter set an equally absurd task for himself when he chose to transcribe a blurred photograph into the realm of paint?
Rauch’s men are physically and mentally uncomfortable. They want reassurance but can’t find any. In Die Flamme a young man’s legs are strapped to boards which form an X; he is walking, but his feet are trapped inside a box full of paint jars. His state is painful and purposeful, absurd and sad. Needless to say, his eyes are not articulated; one must be blind to be a painter these days. In Die Fuge, the largest and one of the most powerful paintings (Warten auf die Barbaren being the other), Rauch succeeds in uniting near and far, as well as connecting disparate elements in a weirdly believable space. On the far left, a young man is studying a book. Behind him, in a nondescript brick building like those we see at border crossings, one glimpses rolled up monochromatic canvases. Three figures float in the air above him as firemen grapple with a hose on his right, forming a circular enclosure that both separates him from and unites him with the rest of the painting, where an unfathomable narrative is unfolding. Using abstract directionals and visual rhymes, Rauch establishes a pictorial logic that is simultaneously apparent and hermetic. It is hard not to wonder what, if anything, is going on.
Rauch doesn’t see himself working in the wake of Frank Stella’s “what you see is what you see” dictum, and his work can’t be read literally. The other stumbling block is his refusal to utilize process art or the nearly ubiquitous practice of playing with mediated images. In other words, he refuses to honor any of the academic models of progress that continue looming over the art world, like Godzilla. This doesn’t mean Rauch is always successful. Some of his paintings are ponderous; others are too obvious in their mysteriousness. But his questioning of the Romantic ideal of the artist-hero, and the way he goes about it, are a healthy antidote to the waves of irony and smugness flooding the scene. And if you naively believe that the trope of the male artist-hero is dead, consider for a moment how many reasonably intelligent people prostrate themselves before Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and others, and loudly proclaim their genius. Remember the 80s, when critics lined up to shout “genius” from every Soho rooftop. Contrary to what we would like to believe, we are not all that far from the dead, stale air of the 19th century.