Neo Rauch

Over the last quarter century Neo Rauch has emerged as one of the key figures in the resurgence of German figurative painting. The principal artist of the so-called New Leipzig School, he takes his lead from painters such as Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter—who, like him, are natives of the former East Germany—as well as influences ranging from state-sponsored Socialist Realism to Surrealism to the art of comic books and commercial graphics.

Rauch's large-scale, often stridently colored paintings have the character of feverishly worked notations from a particularly unsettling dream life. Soldiers, animals, and people conducting business, carousing, and enacting strange rituals slip between historical periods and pictorial styles in a seeming parody of narrative painting. The work is at once instantly recognizable and utterly inimitable, and it has become a collectors' favorite in both Europe and the United States.

Rauch is the subject of a major retrospective, "Neue Rollen," organized by the Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg, and currently showing at the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague. And on May 22, his exhibition of newly commissioned works, "para," opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the third consecutive summer "At the Met" exhibition by a highly prestigious contemporary artist, following Tony Oursler (2005) and Kara Walker (2006). Rauch answered ARTINFO's questions from his Leipzig studio, where he was preparing for the exhibition.


Neo, tell me about your retrospective in Wolfsburg. How did it feel to see 13 years of your work gathered in one place? Did you discover aspects of your work that you hadn't appreciated before?

To be honest, I had some anxieties and doubts about the Wolfsburg exhibition. There were a number of important paintings that, for various reasons, could not be included. This made me wonder whether people would be able to understand my development as a painter, and whether it might not make future exhibitions more difficult.

What made me forget my doubts was the fact that the curators [Holger Broeker and Markus Bruderlin] created a series of spaces that allowed people to see the twists and turns of my "inner compass." Having all my paintings back together again was like a family reunion: none of my offspring had become unfamiliar with the passage of time; in fact, matching notes in the "old" and "new" ones produced a single continuous melody.

You've called your earliest paintings (from 1993) in the Wolfsburg show your first "valid" pictures. How do you judge a painting's "validity?"

Let's go back to that image of the internal compass that I just spoke of: Before 1993 the magnetic needle was swinging all over the place. Discovering my position was complicated, because there were so many artistic points of reference. I was overwhelmed by all of the possibilities coming into my studio from thousands of different directions. My work displayed violent mood swings from abstraction to figuration, and this was just one of the many internal conflicts I faced at the time.

Had it not been for an extraordinarily evocative dream that brought me to my senses at exactly the right moment, I may have turned into one of those semi-abstract decorators. But the images in that dream were like communications from the deepest realms of my being. They were the direct source of the tondo pictures that I made at the time. They amounted to a sort of synthesis that I hadn't managed up until that point.

"Validity" comes down to the extent to which the uniqueness of the artist's psyche can establish a permanence of form and meaning in the actual work. Since 1993, I have been able to focus better on sorting out what is most significant for me.

Do you consider your work to be surrealist?

Although I have cherished a close affinity with surrealism—basically from my childhood onward—I would hesitate to use the category to refer to my own work. I have no use for the cultishness of classic surrealism or for its tight repertoire of methods. In fact, just the opposite is true: on my canvas, as in my mind, anything is possible. Input from the sphere of the unconscious happens perfectly naturally and is woven into the fabric of my paintings with elements of the real. I think that I have developed a highly flexible process for the making of pictures with long-lasting effect. And ultimately, it is also the result of an always rather precarious balancing act between thesis and antithesis, between above and below, real and surreal, left and right, loud and quiet, and so on.

Tell me about the pictures that you've made specifically for the Metropolitan Museum. What are your intentions with this new work?

The pictures grew—as other groups of pictures have done before them—out of the floor of my studio, as if it was a Witch's Circle [of toadstools], and they were made without any preconceptions to limit what they might be. That's because there were practical considerations in this particular case, namely, the size of the gallery, that were so constraining that imposing any further limitations to fit in with a deliberate concept would have blocked my artistic "transmitter."

As a painter you have always seemed to me to act as an assembler of images taken from a vast range of sources. Do you think that this has parallels with the assembling of a museum collection?

Yes, it's possible that the way that I conjure up images is rather like putting together a museum case that's both thematically linked and deeply felt. The invented character of both the picture and the museum collection stems from a balance between what is authentic and what is unchanging. Neither the picture nor the museum should suggest the appearances of the real world. They should overwhelm the spectator on a more basic level. Everything depends on the selection and the arrangement of the collected items.

Have you made particular references to the Met's collection in these new pictures? Or to museums in general?

When I first agreed to do the Met exhibition, I thought about a way of working that would be about the nature of a museum. But straight away I realized that I was much more interested in those "visions from the Witches Circle" in my studio than I was in coming up with things in a purely thematic way. Calling them "visions" reflects my personality—they precede inspiration and spring from the moment when internal images appear at the prompting of intellectual decisions. I have no choice but to accept everything that I discover in this way.

Translated from the German by Iris Piers and Robert Ayers