‘I like very much the qualities of lead – the surface, the heaviness... I like to react on things, with the normal canvas you often have to kill the ground, give it something to react against. With the metals you already have something - its scratches, scrapes’ (G. Förg, quoted in D. Ryan, Talking Painting, Karlsruhe 1997, http:/www.david-ryan.co.uk/Gunther0Forg.html [accessed 11 May 2016])
Executed in 1994, Untitled is a prime example of Günther Förg’s most well-known series of works, the so-called ‘lead paintings’, which he began making in the early 1980s. Comprising two vertical bands made of lead, one grey and one red, rolled on a wooden support, Untitled conveys a powerful materiality and geometry, two concepts fundamental to the artist’s oeuvre. The unique texture of lead, heavy, naturally toxic, and yet soft and ductile, provides an incomparable surface on which to explore the infinite potentialities of the medium. In Untitled the inconsistent surface of the grey band is juxtaposed against the smooth layer of red colour, creating an outstanding visual tension between the raw lead and the intense brushstroke of paint. Förg was particularly fascinated by the material qualities of the lead and its ability to react with organic chemical substances, as the artist explained: ‘I like very much the qualities of lead – the surface, the heaviness. Some of the paintings were completely painted, and you only experience the lead at the edges; this gives the painting a very heavy feeling - it gives the colour a different density and weight. In other works the materials would be explicitly visible as grounds. I like to react on things, with the normal canvas you often have to kill the ground, give it something to react against. With the metals you already have something - its scratches, scrapes’ (G. Förg, quoted in D. Ryan, Talking Painting, Karlsruhe 1997, http:/www.david-ryan.co.uk/Gunther0Forg.html [accessed 11 May 2016]). With its folds and furrows, the lead offers infinite ways of reworking its surface, its natural irregularities working in contrast with its enforced geometric shapes. In Untitled, the lead creates its own visual language: oxidised by atmospheric agents and shaped according to the will of the artist, it interacts with its surroundings and thus becomes a living entity.
In Untitled the dark grey and purple swathes recall the practice of the American Abstract Expressionist painters Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. The minimalist appearance and visual composition of Untitled is evocative of Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1959) and Newman’s Black Fire I (1961). However, despite this artistic inheritance of his modernist predecessors, Förg resisted Rothko’s and Newman’s transcendental purposes and espoused a more practical approach to art. Distancing himself from his precursors’ metaphysical ideas concerning abstraction, Förg explained: ‘Newman and Rothko attempted to rehabilitate in their works a unity and an order that for them had been lost … For me, abstract art today is what one sees and nothing more’ (G. Förg quoted in Günther Förg: Painting/Sculpture/Installation, exh. cat., Newport Beach 1989, p. 6). With this pragmatic approach to art, in the lead paintings Förg resorted to minimal and rudimentary artistic devices to bring painting back to its fundamental nature. In such paintings, Förg neither depended on symmetry nor used more than two colours; he split the surface of the lead in two juxtaposed areas, divided by either horizontal or vertical lines. The malleability and heaviness of the lead are highlighted by the thin coat of paint, which conveys Förg’s handicraft and artistry. On the other hand, the natural oxidation of the lead creates unpredictable extensions or compressions of texture and colour, which go beyond the artist’s control and mastery, as visible in the present work. Works such as Untitled affirm the revitalising empirical quality of Förg’s abstraction, which he conceived as an expressive visual element that did not need to be theorised.