A few years ago, I found myself hunting in a bookstore for the last copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s latest translation. A socialist from East Germany targeted with kompromat, an exile endowed with awards by the Federal Republic and later reunified Germany, subject of several good reviews in English but mostly unread on this continent. Hilbig’s book, titled “I” (‘Ich,’1993/2015), was there, and on the cover was a painting I recognized and which, encountering of a sudden, sent a shiver down my spine: a faceless portrait, a ghost and a shroud, a ghoulish guise formed from a heavy black haze. There was Max Neumann, passing through the novel like Klee’s Angelus Novus.
Neumann (b. 1949, Saarbruck, Germany) is a fitting choice since, like Hilbig, the painter eerily depicts a particular kind of limbo inhabited by the postwar German generation sometimes referred to as the “fatherless” one. But unlike his compatriots Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, and Georg Baselitz, Neumann’s paintings are not tied so tightly to German history and iconography, nor to the cultural and political aftermaths of the Second World War. Also like Hilbig, the artist says his paintings depict a more universal horror, one which appears to step out at various points in history like a ghost from fog. In a letter to his original publisher, S. Fischer Verlag, Hilbig described “I” as the “inner biography” of a Stasi informant and connected the motives of the spy and the artist, writing:
The loss of the “I” experienced by a collaborator, who works in secret on an image of reality, can be compared with that experienced by a writer, who in the course of his work is confronted more than once with the question: Who or what does the thinking within me?
Neumann, more so than his better-known contemporaries, is a literary painter, by which I mean that he is preoccupied with clarifying the same “secret image of reality” that possesses the writer and the state collaborator. Neumann’s secret story, as evidenced in his three exhibitions at Bruce Silverstein Gallery since 2012—the most recent of which, Specter, closed January 5—offers uncomfortable omens that speak beyond the particulars of divided Berlin to our present condition as well, when American and British governments and corporations vie, in concert, against the former German Democratic Republic to establish the most surveilled states in history, and ghost stories of subhuman boogeymen are invoked in the name of channels and walls. The series of bleak and faceless portraits in Specter embody—if anything—anonymous, malleable identities, phantoms of malignant and unresolved traumas depicted in much the same way as Hilbig, in The Sleep of the Righteous (Der Schlaff der Gerechten, 2002/2015), depicts a Stasi informant—as a timeless figure both Romantic and Gothic, a doppelgänger out of Poe or Dostoevsky, a fable that fills a void.
Still, for Neumann the question of how to entertain the secret “I” is less a political than a formal one, of elucidating something only the artist can see. Following Neumann’s 2015 show at Silverstein, I wrote to the artist and asked him about the power of his portraits’ empty gazes. He responded that his paintings are influenced by his preoccupations with photography and literature. “What happens to faces when they are manipulated by painterly processes?” he asked. “My sole subject is the individual. Perhaps my work also involves a search for answers, an attempt to approach beauty and terror. But I’m a painter foremost. Everyone has thoughts, feelings, dreams, opinions: as far as I’m concerned, art can only be durable when it has found a form for their transformation.”
Neumann is rare among his contemporaries in that he has largely avoided abstraction as a method for bridging the distance between personal and shared experience. (He claims that there is only one extant painting of his in which there is no figure, human or animal.) He looks instead deep into its shadowy recesses. This is not to say he is strictly a realist, nor is he a history painter. Neumann’s work, in as much as it seems preoccupied by a uniquely Germanic culture, revives the language of prewar Expressionist painting and cinema, its Gothic texture—the tortured bodies and material grit of painters like Munch and Gerstl, the shadows of Nosferatu—more than the SS uniforms and bomber jets that have occupied the “fatherless” painters. But while his early paintings are charged with this neo-Expressionist energy, his recent portraits are more deliberately constructed. In them, Neumann layers, scrapes, and rakes paint, drawing gashes and abrasions into its surface, and juxtaposes textures and spatial orientations to create images that are both considered and raw. In the portraits in Specter, Neumann also paints cutouts and full-figured silhouettes (in the past he has focused more on three-quarter portraits), often layering them atop additional figures, doubling his effect. In one 2016 painting, a solid mustard-yellow ground is shaped by the silhouette of a figure, as if it cast the inverse of a shadow on the ground. A second figure, illuminated by this shadow, is outlined with in muddy black paint and its surface is disturbed, as if not seen (through the first figure) with total clarity. These two figures occupy distinct planes that overlap but do not cohere, such that the subjects seem to occupy the falsely intimate distance between an operative and his subject—or an artist and his vision.
Neumann has been the subject of over 150 solo exhibitions, almost all of them in Europe, but in this country most people familiar with his work likely came to it through his book made in collaboration with the novelist László Krasznahorkai, Animalinside. (Krasznahorkai, famously referred to by Susan Sontag as “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” is a frequent artist collaborator; he adapted his own novels into films with the director Béla Tarr.) The question of collaboration can be at odds with an I’s secret image—how to clarify one’s vision while in service of another? The artistry of this little book is animated by this very tension, as the artist and writer take turns picking at the fabric holding the book together. Animalinside sets Neumann’s drawings of a devilish black hound, and occasionally its pack, alongside fourteen texts by Krasznahorkai. It festers with a rodent’s paranoid insistence, as in Kafka’s Burrow but toward the opposite direction: the dog threatens to break free from both the confines in which Neumann has drawn him—his cage, the landscape—as well as that of the book itself.
You are my master, I’m inside you, just like that, inside you, you who are standing here, your hands clasped behind your back, you lean forward attentively and look, but really where do you think you are, in the zoo? a blossoming meadow? in an orchard!? well no, no, not in the zoo and not in the blossoming meadow and not in an orchard but within your own self, you are completely alone, there where between you and me there isn’t any distance at all, because I’m not out there but I’m in here, because I was always inside you, at first just as a kind of cell, or rather something like a mistake in a cell, but then suddenly I grew and now I exist within you with all my force, you carry me everywhere with yourself …
And on the mad sentence goes as the book threatens to consume those who dare read it. This passage, though incomplete, gives a sense of the haunting crux of Neumann’s pictures. Their pathological effect is perhaps one of the reasons why experimental writers such as Krasznahorkai, Colm Tóibín, and Cees Nooteboom have been drawn to the painter’s work: it lingers in the witness, latent and buried, until days later, in the shower or over breakfast, one hears the voices, first as a whisper, start to speak.
Krasznahorkai also wrote the introduction to Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, which was translated the same year as “I,” praising his “visionary” sentences “that give color, light…, even a kind of magnificence to this bleak and desolate world.” Perhaps a school has coalesced? The three artists could consider among their masters a curious constellation of modern hermetics and loonies: Fernando Pessoa, Malcolm Lowry, Thomas Bernhard, and, of course, Franz Kafka, who, in a 1922 letter to Milena Jesenská, glimpses the plaguing phantom. Kafka wrote of “the ghostly element between people,” which modern advancements—“the railway, the motorcar, the aeroplane”—seek to bridge. Yet each advancement, he wrote, contains within it its own inevitability toward failure; they are “inventions made at the moment of crashing,” and they further the unbridgeable divide. “The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.”
A century later, we are conditioned not to see this expanding realm of ghosts, as it creeps in time with the dialectical march of technology no modernist could have foretold. Max Neumann paints the shadows in the eye of this smarmy disposition. Here are the spirits let loose on the paranoiac postwar streets—where such a heretic could be the prophet as readily as he could be the devil. Krasznahorkai is rightfully recognized today as one of our most inventive living authors, while over the past three years, arriving right on time, the trickle of Hilbig translations (particularly by Isabel Fargo Cole) has become a steady flow. We’re ready now for Neumann, too. We have also been living in a black fog of late. Less hellfire than the smoldering pit of ash into which a horse sinks in the opening pages of The Sleep of the Righteous, but I recognize the faces around me in these empty guises and, in the absence of humanity, I am afraid.