Over the course of the 20th century, abstraction changed the visible face of our world — leaping from canvas to canvas, from continent to continent, becoming the defining art form of modernism. Its variations are innumerable, its practitioners masters of its forms: the monochromes of Yves Klein, the grids of Piet Mondrian, the ethereal colour washes of Mark Rothko, the gestural flicks of Jackson Pollock.
The work of Günther Förg, Imi Knoebel and Helmut Federle, however, strips away abstraction’s utopian ideals and strict dogma of the past, reimagining it as an art form for the turn of the 21st century. Here, we take a closer look at the three artists.
Günther Förg (1952–2013), a multidisciplinary German artist whose body of work spanned photography, sculpture, installation and painting, was both a proponent and keen interrogator of the modernist aesthetic tradition. Förg was deeply influenced by Blinky Palermo, the German abstract artist famous for his ‘fabric paintings’ (cloth pulled over a frame), and his early work consisted mainly of canvases in black acrylic.
Förg expanded into photography in the 1980s, taking architectural landmarks as his subject. Particularly drawn to Bauhaus-era buildings, Förg shot large-scale photos at sharp angles, off-centre or through windows, at once lending his pictures a painterly quality and reflecting a keen interest in fragmentation.
Returning to painting later in the 1980s, Förg produced the monochrome lead pieces for which he is perhaps best known: wood panels covered with lead and painted in acrylic. As Förg has said, these works — which mixed media in ways that tested the boundaries of both painting and sculpture — were an ‘attempt to explore a contradictory clarity of form with an expressionist handling’. Returning to abstraction from a critical perspective, Untitled (2006) offers a commentary on the paradoxical history of abstract painting.
As a young man Imi Knoebel (b. 1940), today considered one of the leading contemporary German artists, initially struggled to develop his practice. ‘I thought, “Everything has been done already,” ’ he told The Guardian in the summer of 2015. ‘Yves Klein has painted his canvas blue, Lucio Fontana has cut slashes into his. What’s left? If you want to do something, to stay alive, you have to think of something at least as radical.’
Ultimately, of course, Knoebel did find his way, studying with Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 1960s and going on to explore colour, form and space in disciplines ranging from sculpture, painting and photography to installation and light projection.
Taking up Malevich’s mantle, Knoebel’s work has remained strictly abstract and minimal, although he moved over the course of his career from black and white to bold, primary colour, often applied on metal plates or plywood board.
Among Knoebel’s most significant works are the nine abstract stained-glass windows he created for the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, installed in 2011 and 2015, each comprised of hundreds of glass pieces in red, blue and yellow.
Swiss painter Helmut Federle (b. 1944), a self-described ‘searcher in the romantic tradition’, has referred to himself as drawn to ‘loneliness, the emptiness, the empty spaces’, a tendency reflected in his work throughout his career. Federle trained in applied arts in Basel in the 1960s, studying a range of techniques from sculpture and painting to architecture and typography. He moved into complete abstraction from the late 1970s, restricting his colour palette and privileging composition above all.
Federle has acknowledged the influence of an eclectic array of sources on the development of his visual language: the mountainous landscape of his native Switzerland; early travels in India (and later, Asia); Buddhism; American artists Barnett Newman and Clifford Still; and the vastness of the American West.
Whether in minimalist, austere and meditative paintings or large-scale collaborations with some of the world’s top architects, his art reveals a sustained preoccupation with space, geometry, and ultimately, spirituality. As Federle has said of his work, ‘you will be more correct to read it in a more romantic or spiritual way’.