Reason Without Meaning


Neo Rauch’s museum-scaled paintings, composed of major but outmoded styles, produce a kind of psycho-visual whiplash, caroming between overwhelming physical power and spirit-numbing optical monotony. This is Rauch’s third solo exhibition in New York since he was “discovered” by American viewers at the 1999 Armory Show. By now, this 45-year-old Leipziger is an international art star, the subject of more than a half-dozen museum shows, and one of the most influential teachers in Germany. As strong as his paintings have been—and Rauch is easily one of the most interesting painters working anywhere today—his canvases have had a disconcerting tendency to look alike. Many resemble circus posters, enlarged pulp fiction illustrations, or Soviet-era advertising.

These new paintings—collectively titled “Renegaten,” or “Renegades”—are his most ambitious, raffish, witty, and least dour to date. Several still look like theater backdrops or neo-romantic socialist realism by way of Courbet, Delacroix, surrealism, and Kippenberger. But three, the operatic
New Roles/New Rolls, the brooding Blue Elephant, and the very oedipal Godfather—featuring a gigantic man towering over a boy with a small sword—are sensational and show Rauch shedding some of his vexing stolidness.

Rauch admits that his imagistic vocabulary was adopted “very early on” and that it is “modifiable only to a limited extent.” In “Renegaten,” he deploys his usual cast of artists, workers, wanderers, jugglers, and the burly Viking that curator Laura Hoptman calls a “Paul McCarthy character” who carries a sausage sporting the word solution. Windmills and rockets crop up, as do dilapidated town squares, parks, and farms. Work crews regularly conduct repairs.

Rauch lambastes so-called “zeitgeist painting” as merely “scraping at spots that are already sore” and admits to working in what he calls “a fairly conventional figurative style.” His technique, brash but never expressionistic, recalls the neo-Expressionism of Jorg Immendorff, who deals with German states of mind, and David Salle, who employs collage-based composition. But while Immendorff’s brushwork is free and Salle attaches appropriated objects to his paintings, Rauch’s paint application is more controlled and he orchestrates everything on single surfaces. Although he claims “never” to use photographs or “any” pre-existing source, so much of what he paints seems like it comes from somewhere that these claims feel fishy. Still, for all their nettlesome allegorical impulse and emotional reticence, these paintings are completely rooted in the physical.

Rauch’s paint handling has taken off. These canvases seem to have been executed in prolonged single campaigns. Surfaces are rich and varied but never overworked. Color is lurid and luminous. He is a maestro of light. His touch goes from sturdy and workmanlike to larky, assured, and experimental in only a few feet. Rauch thinks in paint on canvas. As he does, viscosities shift from thin to thick, washy to dappled. This creates fantastically contradictory, hallucinogenic spaces that erupt, recede, then disintegrate into vague voids. Sometimes they disappear for patches at a time in bare canvas, before rolling frontward again in dense magma-like spumes, finally flattening out into fields of opaque pigment. This is the lifeblood of his work.

Rauch’s figures exist in unstable scales and time frames. They change shapes, have thick trucks but shrunken heads, or big torsos but little legs. Some seem contemporary; others appear to hail for the historical past.

One looks like a student, another like a Visigoth. All are breathtakingly passive, virtually impotent, and move at the speed of the living dead. Lost in thought or engaged in quotidian activities, these zombies are like slightly mobile statues or fugitives from fairy tales, art history, or the old East Germany. Max Beckmann’s crowded canvases come to mind. But Beckmann’s figures are charged with life and intensity. Rauch’s are lifeless, sexless phantoms of a painted world.

Although several of these paintings are stunning, I think they could be hard to live with. They’re grand, commanding, and willful. Their subject matter feels oddly alien, even irrelevant. At Zwirner, although awed, I found myself longing to look at something more personal, abstract, off-kilter, or makeshift. I kept wanting to see a Steve DiBenedetto or a Peter Doig—artists who noodle around to get what they want, who produce visual glitches, or whose surfaces are more organic and varied—or something as refined as an Agnes Martin or a Jim Nutt, or as fiercely intelligent, brilliantly intuitive, and aesthetically vulnerable as the new paintings of Jasper Johns. Anything less obdurate and disassociated.

At his best, Rauch takes you to an inner infirmary where ideas, ideals, recollections, and reality pool into new miasmatic configurations—a place where stories go to die, figures are pathogens of thought, and repression replaces gravity. In this no-man’s-land, Rauch may invent narratives, but he doesn’t tell stories. He allows reason to exist without meaning and silences the storyteller within. When he does this, as in the three paintings at Zwirner, the stiltedness that sometimes stifles his work turns psychically staggering, and Rauch rules.