Neo Rauch at the Drawing Center

Neo Rauch, Die Eselpfleger, 2013. Felt-tip pen and oil on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin and David Zwirner © Neo Rauch, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Neo Rauch, nearly sixty, has been in the public eye for some time. Born in East Germany, he still paints in Leipzig. This show of drawings made by Rauch at the Drawing Center conveys to the audience his profound, if also messy, sense of psychology intertwined with historical painting. Rauch does not differentiate between his drawings and his paintings, which are regularly composed of human figures and tangential visual effects, sometimes figurative, sometimes not. The compositions are flooded with visual components that seem to arbitrarily fit into the overall image; there is no real sense of order in most of what he does. It often seems as though the visual field in his work is an occasion for casual thinking about the nature of a hierarchical organization, as Rauch experiences it in historical imagery that cannot be placed exactly in time–the feeling of much of his work seems to stem from the late 19th century. Some of the 19th-century romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich comes through in Rauch’s art,  but he draws and paints much more freely than his artistic forerunner. Perhaps part of the general disorganization of Rauch’s work has to do with his wish to generate an ambience in which disorder is a virtue, both visually and historically, in that it more truly considers the chance events painting records.

Neo Rauch, Hauptquartier, 1996. Ink, pencil, and oil on paper, 12 3/8 x 19 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist, Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin and David Zwirner © Neo Rauch, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Reading fine art symbolically is always problematic; it assigns a prescribed meaning to the imagery that may not always live up to the interpretation. It is true, though, that Rauch more than flirts with symbolic content in work that emphasizes psychology through suggestion. But problems remain, in the sense that an emotion or psychic outlook is extremely difficult to specify in a visual context. The specific frame of reference for the individual works in the show simply is not available in a manner we can easily read. Yet that doesn’t matter, since Rauch usually is drawn to ambiguous situations that can be interpreted variously. If we assign a single reading to the works seen in the show, we limit the number of ways we might understand the imagery. It looks like Rauch is producing works that generate a series of concomitant possibilities, without particular preference for one perception over another. He is content to suggest many things at once. Our job as viewers is to try to hold these different prospects in our mind all at the same time, in a way that renounces specificity. Doing so enables Rauch’s audience to appreciate the multivalent circumstances of his painting.

Neo Rauch, Falle, 1995. Felt-tip pen and crayon on paper, 8 3/8 x 5 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin and David Zwirner © Neo Rauch, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The problem, though, that occurs along with the artist’s casual determinations of meaning is that particularity of the theme is lost. We don’t know the background of his works–we recognize only that his visuals operate through suggestion. So we usually understand his art as generative of the kind of not fully comprehended nuances we assign to experience in the world. In the drawing Falle (1995), made with felt-tip pen and crayon, the center of the composition is held by an image of a short-haired man grasping a pen, against a light-blue background in a thought balloon. The balloon points to a square hole with two thin pieces of wood. Next to the hole is a tree whose upper trunk is free of bark, leading to a small concentration of foliage on the highest upper right. Bushes appear in the background, while in the front we see a metal strut thrown on the ground. Some sort of telephone pole, with reddish lines dangling from the top crossbar, exists behind the tree. In German, the word “falle” means trap in both a literal and figurative way. Clearly, the drawing illustrates the idea of a trap with its hole in the ground, but the metaphorical associations of the world also come to mind. We often find living a kind of metaphysical trap, and it looks very much like that is what Rauch is intimating.

Neo Rauch, Der Stammbaum, 2017. Oil on paper, 66 1/4 x 81 3/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin and David Zwirner © Neo Rauch, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In Der Stammbaum, an oil on paper much more complicated than Falle, made in 2017, Rauch puts a young tree in the hands of a man wearing a hunting cap, a red coat and pants. The title in English means “family tree,” with all the allusions to generation and continuity attendant to that phrase. The tree, with its roots above the ground, looks as though it is about to be planted; behind this scene is a group of men dressed in gray waistcoats. One of them attends to a strange sculpture of a tree trunk supporting colored spheres attached to each other with thin, rounded beams. The structure extends quite a bit above the tree. Behind them is a gray house with an open garage in which a parked car is found. To the far right are two figures, one male and one female, holding containers; beneath them, on a small patch of grass, are two heads with flattened bodies in red. Finally, on the left, are an array of abstract effects: a zigzag stripe in black; an amorphous, vertical white cloud; and next to it another vertical band of dense brown squiggles. It may not be possible to fully read Rauch’s intentions here, but the array of imagery, shifting as it does from figuration to abstraction, looks like a brilliant collage of conflicting visuals and themes–even if we don’t know what the themes are!

Neo Rauch, Tantentäuscher, 2006. Oil, chalk, and felt-tip pen on paper, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist, Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin and David Zwirner © Neo Rauch, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In Tantentauscher (2006), a middle-aged man wearing a green vest and black lederhosen extends his tongue toward a large dark-orange udder hanging above him. Other extraneous markings occur around him, including a small black face. The literal translation of the title is “aunts phoney”–it is hard to say what the phrase might mean. But surely the image refers to the idea of nurture, however strange the visual terms might be. Rauch is willing to investigate the scene with a fair amount of ambiguity; indeed, he does that on a regular basis. The symbolic uncertainty of the image increases its effect, even if we do not know what is happening. If we are meant to concentrate on the notion of sustenance in the work, then clearly the artist is painting in an emblematic fashion. In fact, the symbolism is heavy-handed–we can say in the German fashion. But maybe that’s the point. Rauch doesn’t make his intentions always so clear, as happens in this drawing. But we generally feel a multitude of valences is possible in the show’s drawings.

To finish: Rauch is an artist of complexity, aided by a sketchy imagery. It is very difficult to assign a single meaning to his scenarios. He portrays psychic circumstances so indistinct as to be fluid in the minds of his audience. This fluidity, rather than any anxious emphasis of fact, results in a body of drawings notable for their large implications. If we are unable to pinpoint his intentions, that is fine. In return for our suspension of disbelief, we gain a world in which fiction is anchored by fact–without knowing what the visuals may actually address. Rauch thus undermines any expectations of clear meaning, preferring to present a memorably polysemous art.

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Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art–for such publications as Art in America, the Brooklyn Rail, Whitehot Magazine, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

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