The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago this week had groundbreaking consequences for art, as well as ushering in lasting political and economic reform.
Neo Rauch, who hails from Leipzig, formerly in East Germany, is one of the leading painters of his generation.
While unveiling At the Well, his sixth solo exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan, Rauch said he would never have got to where he is today had Communism not collapsed. ‘It’s an overwhelming event and whenever I think about it, it touches my heart,’ he told Christie’s Art Digest. ‘It’s very welcome otherwise I wouldn’t be here now and this wouldn’t be happening.’
But, intriguingly, Rauch reckons that while the fall of the Berlin Wall had huge ramifications for his career, it didn’t alter the content of his dreamlike paintings which fuse Socialist realism with surrealist abstraction. ‘When I follow the development of my painting backwards, there’s no break or revolution,’ he said. ‘It’s just an evolution.’
Rauch, 54, is at the vanguard of the New Leipzig School of painters, all of whom came of age in a divided Germany. The Leipzig art scene was described a decade ago by Joachim Pissarro, then a curator at MOMA, as ‘the hottest thing on Earth’, and Rauch still lives in the Saxony city. ‘As a German I am deeply connected with the history and tragedy of my country,’ he said.
At the Well marks a change in artistic direction for Rauch who had a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007. The historical figures in the 16 paintings are sculptors and horse riders, and wear pink trainers contrasting the more austere industrial settings he’s renowned for depicting. Some of his earlier work is presently showcased in Christie’s Mayfair exhibition The Bad Shepherd which explores the artistic legacy of Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
An additional milestone is that At the Well marks Rauch’s first English exhibition title. ‘The well is an old-fashioned word for a hole and also it has a charming double meaning in terms of “well” feeling “good”,’ he noted. ‘The title sounds… Well!’
When asked about his attitude to conceptual art, Rauch was as playful as the tone of his new work: ‘I’m a conceptual artist — my concept is not having a concept!’ He insists he has no plan when he begins a picture: ‘I have no strong ideas. It’s not fair in my opinion to use things like projection. It’s not the task of the painter to be an instrument of enlightenment. The opposite is the case. Re-enchantment is my task in as romantic a way as possible.’
Rauch is growing in stature as a contemporary artist at auction. Last February his painting Platz (Square) sold for £1.06 million at Christie’s London. David Zwirner, who introduced Rauch at the opening, said, ‘He’s one of the greatest living painters of his generation. The art market takes note of that. Ever since we started working together prices have gone up and we’re not done yet.’