Neo Rauch: Heilstätten
David Zwirner Gallery - New York
By Stephen Knudsen
Neo Rauch got a second wind in New York, recovering from the cramped curation of his exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007-a show that had his paintings ducking low ceilings both figuratively and literally. In the 2011 show at the David Zwirner Gallery, that mistake was not repeated, with his new mural-sized paintings balanced in vast horizontal and vertical white space without accoutrements of any kind. The last thing a painter of heroic scale needs is space constraint.
Of the dozen new paintings, most of the large ones brim over with disjointed viewpoints, vanishing points and figural relationships. These are hallmark Rauch paintings that make you feel like you are falling into the rabbit hole-paintings that depict people with grit, always fixing, making do, trying to find inspiration to go on and keep the faith in spite of utopia in entropy.
Thankfully, Neo Rauch has given us something new as well. Consider April Night, 2011. When surveying his work of the last two decades, one is hard- pressed to find any large figurative painting like it.
The 10-foot-tall April Night breaks ranks by reeling back into something calm and quiet. Reasons for this are difficult to deduce, as Neo Rauch has become increasingly guarded about his personal iconography. Though he understands the impulse to have his rhetorical inventory explained, ultimately he feels the work best reveals its intellectual and visceral evocations over time in non-verbal space. Speaking with Hanna Schouwink, gallery partner and long-time advocate of Rauch, one gets more ringside clues into the work. She spent time with the artist in his studio while this body of work was in production. Ms. Schouwink confirmed Neo Rauch’s concerted intention to pare down April Night, remarking that originally there were three figures in the painting. The calm in April Night feels like a good exhale-a counterpoint to the super-packed and active imagery of the artist’s other paintings.
In April Night, the building, excavating, carrying and pulling of a typical Rauch painting is reduced to thinking. The two figures lounge on stumps, communing with an owl and an owl’s head-not unlike the bizarre Max Beckmann paintings with figures holding fish in unholy ways. All of his work acknowledges the limitations and yet the great will power in human energy, and interpreting his iconography at that starting point is often effective.
The owl can be seen as the wide-eyed hunter in search of inspiration. The woman and man, with their eyes closed, are trying to decipher and process that inspiration. They signify the artist as hunter, with paintbrushes placed in the falconry gloves. However, sometimes there is no inspiration. Sometimes the artist finds it. Rauch does not stop there, because the thinking and the introspection are written in some code in nature. Stumps make letters on the ground, and branches seem to spell something out in the sky. It does not matter what the message is other than some kind of information about to ignite.
Neo Rauch has lived most of the 51 years of his life in or near Leipzig, Germany, the city of his birth. Even while East Germany was communist, he stayed and was conditioned in a way that those artists who left for the free West could never be. He witnessed the limping economy of communist East Germany (GDR) and the sprawl of uninspired gray concrete that was the Berlin Wall. He saw Leipzig poison itself with industrial waste, and he experienced the physical and psychological repression-all of this constant until the euphoric reunification of Germany when he was 30 years old. In the 1980s, Rauch studied painting at Leipzig’s Academy of Visual Arts, choosing to embrace the figure in painting even though it was certainly distasteful that the figure was key to Social Realism, the GDR-sanctioned art. Indeed, signifiers of coping with repression, as he experienced it, populate his works. In April Night, the figures wear the coats of East German border guards-a nod to the past and the long-vanquished wall. The man also wears guard boots, but as a 21st-century fashion update the woman’s boots are pink.
In hindsight, Neo Rauch’s unusual choice of artistic lineage seems like a smart fit. But a little more than just a decade ago, it was not looking that way. Making large figurative paintings, which feel narrativish and evoke sensibilities that can go back centuries, is just what most of his contemporaries, from the East and West, distanced themselves from-and for good reason. Such an approach is a tough way to go in a contemporary art world bent on exacerbating the latest idiosyncrasies, with a great deal built on digital influence. If anyone deserves to emulate and continue the lineage of greats like Max Beckmann, it should be someone like Mr. Rauch.
Taking a retro stance kept the artist in obscurity for a good part of his career, and he was willing to accept that in order to paint on his terms. But after the buzz over his paintings at the 1999 Armory Show in New York, that all changed. Rauchmania has been brought to fever pitch by some critics such as Roberta Smith, collectors such as Saatchi and curators such as Gary Tinterow. So why did the work, on its own terms, catch fire? Smith, writing in a 2000 New York Times review, was right to praise formal qualities in the work and the artist’s ability to “effortlessly move back and forth between material [loose details] and representation.”1 Many of the works are painted well, with a quality that only gets better as they get bigger. In the 19th century, Gustave Courbet taught us the power of placing the laborer on a heroic stage, and Rauch gets that right without question.
As cryptic as it often seems, the iconography is what ultimately resonates. We seem to grasp the power of it even if we are unsure of the precise message. Mr. Rauch ‘s work cries out about the struggle in a time when we find our direction to be suspect. But the works do not push this pessimism too far. Unlike an Odd Nerdrum post-utopia, all is not lost. We still heal. We still try. We still have potential to have a thought that will do good.
April Night evokes the idea of thought, both intellectually and viscerally. We intellectualize the thinking figures, but we also feel the invitation to meditate through the formal qualities of the work. The painting plays down Mr. Rauch’s characteristic wild, graphic-like design, and he gets the idea of thought across in a new way, here, by allowing figures, objects and ground to tonally merge more than usual. In a sense, a little Leonardo sfumato has taken hold, and I am not simply speaking just of the little smoke from the fire. Forms dissolve in the atmosphere of twilight. This is a quiet color language that speaks to the electrical impulses of thinking, which are akin to the voltage through the power line and April’s near emergence into a Northern European spring.
Even the process of the painting is about a stream of thought let loose. Rauch works without any preparatory drawings and photographic mediation, starting with an object or face and letting it evolve organically. In a recent interview with Rita Pokorny, Mr. Rauch said that hopefully the work becomes “an animal, a living thing…As soon as I have the feeling that the thing has blood circulating through it, a nervous system, a skeleton, then questions as to the message become completely marginal.”2 Rauch clearly wants the viewer to come away moved on a gut level rather than just an intellectual level.
A companion piece to April Night, the bronze sculpture titled The Hunter confirms one of the interpretations of the painting: that of artistic inspiration and thought. According to Hanna Schouwink, one of the early titles considered for the sculpture was simply The Painting. Ms. Schouwink remarked, “I find it so interesting that this painter makes a sculpture that is an allegory for painting.”3 Neo Rauch has stated in German television interviews that he mixes his paints right on the studio floor and that faces just appear on the floor and beg to be put on canvas. Likewise, The Hunter has faces appearing on her torso.
The meaning of the sculpture certainly has other facets, however. It is more ominous than April Night, for instead of a human holding the head of an owl, the owl has collected human heads that have been affixed to the figure’s upper body as if hung by a cord around the neck as trophies.
Today, the owl is often an emblem of wisdom, with roots in Greek mythology, but it can also signify evil and ignorance harkening back to interpretations in medieval bestiaries and later in Goya’s Caprichos series. In that perspective, the owl signifies a crisis of reason that is as destructive to our humanity now as it was then.
The sculpture, The Hunter, shows up in the painting Heilstätten and confirms this expanded meaning of the work. On the furthest horizon, in a small area near the center of the painting, a man in a purple coat seeking care (or having received it) stands with head down before the sculpture-an act of ideological triage, of finding something redemptive in our present condition. The fuel cans that he has carried and set down also speak to the idea of finding the energy to go on in spite of it all.
These new works clear up a misconception. We should take Mr. Rauch at his word, that he has little interest in emulating pure Surrealism or Social Realism. He is no more either of those than Picasso was. There is no jingoism for the state and/or the subconscious.
In 1820, Hegel remarked, “The owl of the Roman Goddess Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”4 Good philosophy, and inspiration for that matter, often comes too late for its age. But it can still come, and that is why Mr. Rauch’s paintings, even with their recognition of compromised and failed utopias, do more than inform on gloom. They can speak of transformations wrought by processed inspiration, and in April Night this creative energy is painted with uncharacteristic suspense and quiet, feeling like a sublime whisper that the game is not over. Of course, the title of the show foretold this: “A Place of Healing.”
1. Smith Roberta, “Neo Rauch.” Art in Review. The New York Times March 10, 2000. <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/10/arts/art-in-review-neo-rauch.html>
2. Pokorny, Rita. “Interview. You won’t find an ‘Untitled’ among my works.” The Art Newspaper Issue 224 May 19, 2011.
3. Excerpt from a conversation with Hanna Schouwink in December 2011.
4. See, Hegel, G.W.F. “Preface”. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Ted Honderich (ed.), Oxford: The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995, pp. 638.
(November 4 - December 17, 2011)
Stephen Knudsen is a professor of painting at Savannah College of Art and Design and exhibits work internationally. He is a regular contributor to NY Arts Magazine, Chicago Art Magazine and The SECAC Review Journal. He is also a co-developer of Image Comparison Aesthetics for theartstory.org and developer of Fourth Dimension Color Theory and the Dual Color Wheel, both of which are used widely in universities.
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