Neo Rauch’s “At the Well,” featuring new small- and large-format paintings, opens today at David Zwirner Gallery.
Rauch was born in Leipzig in 1960; his parents died in a train accident when he was four weeks old. Growing up in East Germany, he wasn’t exposed to much of the Western avant-garde, and though he’s denied that reunification influenced his development, I think it’s no coincidence that his show comes now, on the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
His aesthetic couches the East with the West, and they make for strange bedfellows: the work is full of doom, but it’s never quite nefarious. If anything, a disquieting calm obtains. “My pictures supposedly have a vital quality, like an animal, a living thing,” Rauch told the Art Newspaper in 2011. “There is no need to understand, only to feel that this creature is, to the greatest possible degree, at peace with itself.”
Whether we’re at peace with it is another question. Looking at Rauch’s paintings, you feel as if you’ve gotten lost in the corridors of a vast, oppressive Soviet bloc building and opened the wrong door: you’ve stumbled upon the neon guts, the recondite boiler room, of social realism. Everyone is hard at work—but what are they working on? Again and again, his paintings find stone-faced men and women in dutiful pursuit of some arcane greater good. They plod through slanted, parti-colored worlds of clock towers and quaint rooftops, abrading the land without doing violence to it. This is labor as ritual, or ritual as labor. As a statement by the gallery says,
His paintings are characterized by a unique combination of realism and surrealist abstraction. In many of his compositions, human figures engaged in indeterminable tasks work against backdrops of mundane architecture, industrial settings, or bizarre and often barren landscapes.
Rauch said in a 2009 interview,
What finally condenses on the canvas is highly subtle and in need of protection. Sometimes I am surprised by the result of my art. There is a figure, which appears again and again: it might be a revenant or a reincarnation. He finds his way on to my canvas subconsciously. Only when I look at the finished work I realize: here he is again. It is true, his is the face of a decade and that decade is the fifties.
“At the Well” is up through December 20.
All images © Neo Rauch