Neo Rauch: Tal, 1999, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 by 98 3/8 inches. Private collection.

All photos this article Uwe Walter, Berlin. Courtesy Galerie Eigen + Art, Leipzig/Berlin, and David Zwirner, New York.

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).

Yet there is also something jarring and unsettling about the paintings’ evocation of the DDR. In Arbeiter (Workers), 1998, two earnest yet befuddled laborers wearing aprons and big hats are at work; one attempts to attach troublesome cables to a facade with rows of colored windows, the other to make sense of a small package that contains part of a broken wall with a small window. In Rauch’s paintings, diligent-looking people attempt to make baffling, and perhaps pointless, technology function. (People in East Germany constantly fixed things, if only for a time, with old or improvised tools and scrounged materials.) Mittag (Noon), 1997, shows a city inexplicably quiet and almost empty at midday. In the foreground, three traffic tollgates in a cluster make little sense, since there is no traffic at all; next to them looms an odd vertical contraption that perhaps was once some futuristic marvel, but is now of indeterminable purpose. A pensive male worker steps across the empty street toward a female comrade standing on the steps of an institutional-looking building, as the gray sky and a yellow-gold section at the left close off the whole scene. The oddly sealed city feels apparitional, as if about to fade out and vanish altogether.

At all stages of his career, Rauch combines styles: he is as much an abstractionist as a realist. Parts of the paintings are meticulously rendered, with acute attention to detail, while others look willfully clumsy, casually streaked and smeared, or abruptly left raw and unfinished. While obviously a master of brushwork and perspective, Rauch positions figures of wildly different sizes next to one another, ignores gravity, collapses distance and fuses seemingly separate scenes into a choppy whole. During a public conversation at the Goethe-Institut New York in 2008, the artist was asked by an audience member about the meaning of his characters. He candidly admitted that he couldn’t always say for sure, but sometimes his figures are there simply because the picture requires it, in really formal terms: color, balance, scale and proportion. Rauch, an artist identified with resurgent figurative painting, may be developing and positioning figures much as an abstract painter works with basic formal elements. The bizarre, knife-wielding guy in Das Gut (The Manor), 2008, pinioned against the hood of a car by a woman and a raging man, may have two fish-shaped legs not because the artist is making mythological allusions or crafting an allegory, but because the painting demanded something light blue and curving at that point.

Rauch’s many, oftentimes stylish figures, well-coiffed and well-dressed (albeit in eccentric clothing), are vivid and intense, yet you never really identify or empathize with them as individuals. Perhaps they are not intended to be individuals at all, but to function as representatives of society. A sprawling cast of workers, students, bureaucrats, engineers, pilgrims, musicians, soldiers, scientists, fishermen and artists populate the paintings. Many observers have commented on their theatricality, as if these colorful “actors” are performing roles, however mysterious and absurd, though with a pervasive air of cool detachment and emotional reserve. Routine and familiar matters—a professor lecturing to students, a man on an afternoon stroll, technicians tinkering over some machine, a parent cradling a child, a café scene—are infiltrated by bizarre, unruly and at times surreal elements that make things seem fantastical and precarious to the point of impending mayhem. Mundane situations become outrageous and freakish, while outlandish ones seem inevitable and commonplace.

A 19th-century gentleman in a dark suit and top hat, clutching an odd, squiggly cane almost like a serpent, gingerly steps into an expanse of shallow, yellowish water (Vorhut, Vanguard, 2003). The landscape behind him is benighted, even post-apocalyptic; a building on a plateau looks official and scary; and the yellow water resembles some terrible toxic spill. (For the entire DDR period, extensive coal mining outside of Leipzig, along with heavy pollution from chemical plants, seriously befouled the city and ravaged much of the surrounding landscape.) Call this painting Rauch’s reeling version of the German Spaziergang,a revivifying walk in nature. Actually, nature is essential in Rauch’s work, and while it retains a residue of romanticism and a hint of the sublime (bountiful skies, pine forests, distant mountains and sweeping vistas), it is also often gouged, buckling, fissured and bleak, suggesting the aftermath of some environmental disaster.

One is tempted to scour Rauch’s paintings for meaning, to decipher his silent stories and crack the code of his obtuse symbolism, but that’s completely futile. His symbolism, if indeed it is symbolism, is too hermetic, his references too complex. So you give yourself up to his paintings, approaching them with something of the bewilderment with which the characters themselves seem to respond to their perplexing conditions. In Suche (Search), 2004, a gigantic but rather exhausted-looking brown bird with a reptilian tail and sandwich board sporting the painting’s title dangling from its neck has wandered into an outdoor café. No one seems rattled by the creature: not a waitress in an antiquated black dress, nor a seated gentleman in 19th-century garb, nor a contemporary man in a track suit bending over to pat a poodle. The whole semi-grimy, rickety neighborhood is coming apart at the seams; a growing tree blasts through the café’s interior.

Rauch has been called an heir to German Expressionism—one is reminded of the cabarets, stages, bars, actors and clowns of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann (who were themselves descended from Bosch and Brueghel)—as well as to Surrealism. Yet what might be even more pertinent is his connection with a far older tradition: that of the European carnival. Costumed village festivals in which everyone is a participant, religious celebrations with pagan roots and the pre-Lenten celebration known as Fasching or Fastnacht (Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras) license all sorts of ribaldry. Carnivalesque excess, antics and exaggeration abound in Rauch’s paintings, but in a way that’s usually conflated with mundane, everyday life. According to the Russian literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnival is a temporary and oftentimes uproarious suspension of normality, an upset to rigid patterns of behavior and social stratification; it is daily life turned upside down and inside out, drawn out of its “usual rut.”1 Something very similar happens in Rauch’s paintings, in which elements of the status quo coexist with things that have been decisively, even riotously, transformed.

Among the motifs appearing in Rauch’s paintings of the past couple of years are processions, costumes, crowds, combinations of humans and animals, acrobatic feats and holy fools—all staples of the carnival. In Fastnacht (2010) the midwinter nocturnal festival takes place in a small, snowy village, but the mood isn’t one of revelry. Two Cossack-like marauders, each waving a curved saber and clutching a severed head, show up to attack a house with several people inside. (As often happens in Rauch’s paintings, the front wall of this house has vanished to expose the interior.) Dressed in opulent teal and crimson uniforms, which include goofy hobbyhorses at their midsections, these ungainly invaders manage to look at once dangerous, comical and completely out of place: they’re from the wrong century and they’ve arrived at the wrong village, but still they go about their duty, which is to attack. Several men and women in the house, wearing an odd cross of military and equestrian gear, are engrossed in some indecipherable research and remain oblivious to the commotion outside, while an artist in a green T-shirt and paint-splattered jeans kneels on the snow-covered ground, holding several paintbrushes in his hands like pathetic little weapons. Nearby, another sword-wielding invader chases a frenzied crowd into a building. An alarming red glow emanates from behind dark pine trees. Next to a boxy church steeple, the twin smokestacks of a factory or power plant billow out terrible clouds of black smoke. While this painting is antic, even hilarious, it simultaneously evokes more serious matters: wars, scientific inquiry and breakthroughs, mass protest movements, repression and rampant pollution.

Unlike many prominent figurative painters—Richter, Marlene Dumas, John Currin, Luc Tuymans, Lisa Yuskavage and Elizabeth Peyton among them—Rauch often paints “mini-societies” in his works. People gathered in proximity, though also in confusing relation to one another, are not treated primarily as individuals. There is a collectivist energy in Rauch’s paintings, a sense of shared community, and for this he may well be indebted to growing up in East Germany. I’m not referring to official government ideology but rather to life as it was actually led in trying circumstances: people banding together to help one another, sharing responsibility for common enterprises, suppressing egos in service to communal efforts and making do, despite an authoritarian government and the ubiquitous Stasi. Still, Rauch’s oddball communities are anything but lovely and inspiring. Much as the figures participate, they remain uncomfortably solitary, ensconced in their own private, unfathomable psyches.

I mentioned earlier that Rauch’s paintings seem curiously trans-temporal, to the point that a single work might suggest both Germany now and East Germany a couple of decades ago, 19th-century Romanticism, 18th-century soldiers, medieval times and a science-fiction future. Rauch seems to understand that the eras of the DDR and reunification are simply moments among many, that it’s all embedded in the limitless reach of ages, in endless cycles of growth and decay, creation and destruction. Against that vast backdrop, his characters pursue their eccentric enterprises, even as things break down and go awry. You find yourself empathizing with their fabulous, sputtering, ridiculous attempts to make something wonderful, or even viable, despite the fact that they, like us, are subject to time, mishaps and disasters.

Currently On View
“Neo Rauch: Begleiter” at the Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, and the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, through Aug. 15.

1 All quotes from and references to Mikhail Bakhtin are from Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. by Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 122-24.

“Neo Rauch: Begleiter” is on view in Leipzig at the Museum der bildenden Künste and in Munich at the Pinakothek der Moderne [through Aug. 15]. It is accompanied by a catalogue published by Hatje Cantz Verlag. There will also be an exhibition of Rauch’s paintings at the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw [Nov. 26, 2010-Jan. 10, 2011].
GREGORY VOLK is a New York-based critic and curator, and professor at the School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.