Untitled (1990) is a rich and resonant lead painting by Günther Förg, exemplifying the intent exploration of relationships between artwork, object, material and form which fascinated the artist throughout his career. A clean band of deep forest green brackets the panel’s right and lower sides, masking off a large, weathered swathe of raw lead. Förg was interested in the metal’s properties interacting with the layers of paint he applied to its surface. ‘I like very much the qualities of lead – the surface, the heaviness,’ Förg explains; ‘it gives the colour a different density and weight ... 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). The lead in Untitled has been allowed to write its own visual story: oxidised by the atmosphere and redefined by its surroundings, it has become a living, breathing surface, streaked and whorled with patina, a field of texture and depth whose inconsistencies and instabilities work in lively counterpoint to the imposed geometry of Förg’s paintwork.
Although reminiscent of the creations of the Colour Field artists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, works such as Untitled refuse any transcendental claim. Indeed, Förg consciously distanced himself from the near-spiritual aesthetic espoused by the American Abstract Expressionists, explaining that ‘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). Echoing Frank Stella’s famous claim that ‘what you see is what you see,’ Förg belonged to a postmodern generation for whom abstraction was no longer a mode that needed to be defended, sublimated and theorised; rather, it had become one means of expression among many others. ‘The reason for the continued importance of Förg’s oeuvre becomes clear’, the German critic Andreas Schlaegel observes. ‘The evolution of his direct, subjective engagement with the aesthetic of the sublime – conducted without the fear of stereotypical taboos – oscillates between appropriation and homage, yet Förg does so without ironic quotations or other such cheap distancing techniques. Instead, he throws mythical ballast overboard and appropriates picture-making strategies in a way that makes them look new’ (A. Schlaegel, quoted in B. Weber, ‘Günther Förg, German Artist Who Made Modernism His Theme, Dies at 61’, New York Times, 18 December 2013). The weighty materiality of the lead amplifies this departure, underscoring an architectonic and poetic play of surface and depth that has long stood at the heart of the artist’s multidisciplinary oeuvre. In his dialogue with – and self-distinction from – his predecessors, Förg strikes up an anti-dogmatic postmodern commentary upon the modernist legacy, the subtly complex surface of Untitled reconfiguring abstraction as a free and unburdened zone of pictorial power.