Leipzig It has been just over 10 years since the German painter Neo Rauch first began to garner enthusiastic, even rapt, attention in Europe and the United States. The artist, who was born in 1960 in Leipzig, in what was then East Germany (DDR), studied figurative painting at Leipzig’s Academy of Visual Arts in the 1980s, when most of his fellow students wanted nothing to do with “outmoded” representational styles, especially given the Socialist Realist baggage of officially sanctioned art. Remaining in Leipzig (he taught at the academy until 2009) and little known during the immediate aftermath of German reunification, Rauch was the discovery of the 1999 Armory Show in New York, brought there by his gallery, Eigen + Art, which had given him his first solo exhibition in Leipzig in 1993.
Reviewing the Armory Show in the New York Times, Roberta Smith singled out Rauch for his “intriguing paintings” and “beautiful paint handling.” It’s worth recalling how striking and idiosyncratic the work seemed at the time. The paintings were at once scruffy and elegant, cartoonish and old masterish, forthright and enigmatic. Adopting and transforming distinctively East German elements, including propaganda posters, book illustrations, heroic monuments and the resolutely unflashy colors of East German consumer products and design, they also embodied a deeply compelling vision, broadly social yet intensely, inscrutably personal.
A photograph of Rauch’s painting Tal (Valley), 1999, accompanied Smith’s article. The painting is set in a small German village: just a couple of houses, a windmill, a white fence and some trees. A broken ladder lies on the ground; a rural road angles into the distance, presumably toward farmlands. It could be any time in Germany: the late 1990s in some outlying district, the 1960s in the workers’ and peasants’ DDR, the 1920s before the rise of Nazism. In fact, Rauch’s paintings are curiously mobile in time. They might be triggered by details in and around Leipzig, or by childhood memories and, as he has occasionally indicated, dreams, but their reach is into a collective past and toward a speculative future.
In Tal, the sky and the ground are the same monochromatic beige, yielding a formal conflation of up and down, heaven and earth; there is something vertiginous and precarious about the scene. In the foreground is a wooden trough, painted red, which sports the word “TAL” in white letters on one side, variously suggesting an exhortatory slogan in a propaganda poster, a brand name on East German packaging or faded advertisements from many decades ago lingering on a building’s facade. The trough is filled with sickly green leafage and what looks like either a dark rock or a large lump of coal: suspicious feed for the animals, perhaps, or a miniature jumbled valley with an ominous note of dislocation, upheaval and ecological blight.
In the middle of the painting, two bare-chested, battling male figures in baggy red trunks are brandishing long poles; their struggle evokes military training, martial arts, children’s play and medieval quarterstaff fighting. There are no spectators, no referee. The two slightly lumpy, awkward and out-of-proportion combatants look resigned, stoic and a bit vulnerable. Maybe this was meant as an ironic send-up of the former East German government’s obsession with athleticism as a symbol of socialist prowess—but then again, maybe not. You sense that these two men are destined to battle each other in this idiotic and enervated masculine ritual—or that it’s their implacable duty.
Subsequently, much-anticipated New York exhibitions at David Zwirner gallery in 2000 and ’02 solidified Rauch’s escalating reputation, as did multiple gallery and museum exhibitions in Europe. Rauch very quickly became crucial for top collections, and his prices skyrocketed accordingly. Between 2000 and 2004 this painter from off-the-beaten-path Leipzig was in significant group exhibitions in New York, Houston, Paris, New Delhi, Moscow, São Paulo, Copenhagen, Athens and Venice. By mid-decade he was identified as the leading figure of the so-called New Leipzig School, which includes younger figurative and representational painters from across reunified Germany, such as Tilo Baumgärtel, Martin Kobe, Tim Eitel, Christoph Ruckhäberle, David Schnell and Matthias Weischer [see A.i.A., June/July ’05].
Inevitably, Rauch’s ascent and the attention lavished on the younger New Leipzig painters generated a backlash. Few artists in the first decade of this new century had experienced such a rapid and comprehensive ascent. Rauch came to be regarded as too much the anointed darling of the upper echelons of the art world, yet another retro figure reasserting painting’s primacy. Rauch was added to the illustrious line of contemporary German artists that includes Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff, A.R. Penck and Martin Kippenberger, but unlike these artists, some of whom fled the DDR and all of whom established homes and careers in the West, Rauch has stayed in Leipzig, very much remaining an artist of the vanished East.
Rauch turned 50 this April, and in honor of that he is enjoying a sizable, dual-venue midcareer retrospective: in Leipzig, at the Museum der bildenden Künste, and in Munich, at the Pinakothek der Moderne. Another exhibition is set to open in November at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. While these exhibitions are not meant to be comprehensive, they provide a generous selection of paintings that reveal Rauch’s development over the past 15 years. Billed as Begleiter (companions), and sharing a catalogue, the displays in Leipzig and Munich together feature 120 paintings. In Germany, they have special significance, for many of Rauch’s paintings are being exhibited publicly in his home country for the first time, having zoomed straight from galleries into mainly private collections.
One way (among many) of approaching Rauch is to see him as a practitioner of a kind of abstracted and indirect East German pop. He accesses and recasts the popular culture of a time that has ended, from a country that no longer exists. Included in the shows are several early works from the 1990s in vaguely wistful and ambiguously nostalgic color schemes featuring pale russets, aqua-greens, light blues, reds, grays and soft golds. That subdued palette and Rauch’s loosely rendered figures seem suffused with the visual atmosphere of 1960s and ’70s East Germany, right down to the lusterless blue, white and red design of the packaging for Ata cleanser (a common and now obsolete household product once familiar to everyone in East Germany, and unknown to most people elsewhere).