Pictures Stored in Memory

For 20 years, Neo Rauch has stirred up the art world


“Abendmesse” (Evening Mass), 2012, oil on canvas, 300×250 cm

What do Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz and Neo Rauch have in common? One might say, very little. They do after all represent very different painting styles, yet all three were born in Saxony, the point of departure for their rich biographies and careers. Primarily associated with the baroque period and romanticism, the rise of the New Leipzig School in the late 1990s has transformed Saxony into an exciting hotspot for contemporary art, with Neo Rauch (born 1960) being one of the leading painters of his generation worldwide. He was one of the first artists who settled in Leipzig’s Spinnerei compound, a former cotton mill, which is today the epicenter of the city’s creative scene.

In April, Neo Rauch was one of the painting stars of the Art Cologne; a month earlier his piece Die Fremde (2014) was bought by a new client from mainland China for $1 million at Art Basel in Hong Kong. David Zwirner, owner of the powerhouse Zwirner Gallery in New York and London, said sales at the fair had exceeded his expectations. Last fall, Zwirner presented an exhibition of new works by Neo Rauch, his largest solo show to date. “At the Well” brought together small and large format paintings that expand the artist’s unique iconography of eccentric figures, animals, and hybrids within vaguely familiar but imaginary settings.

“In the collision of things that remain separated in the real world, new realms of possibility open up that we find disturbing,” art critic Werner Spies explained some years ago. “I believe we must take this observation as a starting point in order to describe the amazement we feel when looking at Neo Rauch’s work.”

One of the pieces on show in New York was Die Skulpteurin, showing a female sculptor depicted in stark daylight. Since his Werktätige (Workers), who move through puzzling scenarios like sleepwalkers, the notion of labor and activity have always been central to Rauch, while the focus has shifted from physical labor to creative work.

Rauch belongs to a generation of artists who came of age in a divided country. He received his formal education at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, the Academy of Visual Arts of East Germany’s traditional trade city, and worked as an assistant under his professor, painter Arno Rink. Shortly after German reunification, Rauch became the spearhead of a break with the existing dogma of figurative painting.

His paintings are characterized by a unique combination of realism and surrealist abstraction and have become icons of German contemporary art, with figures populating an alternate universe where the environment is unpredictable and anxiety prevails.

Rauch was in his late twenties when the Berlin Wall came down and he was able to make a new beginning. Just twenty years after his debut, his enigmatic paintings are found in the world’s major museums.

Their climate of color and form are sometimes perceived as reminiscences of the 1960s. “At first it was subconscious,” Rauch once recalled, “but increasingly it became intentional.” Dreams provide most of his material, as Werner Spies once stated. “He paints the pictures stored in memory.”

Photo Credit: Private collection courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin and David Zwirner, New York/London Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin

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