Günther Förg. Photo Estate Günther Förg, Suisse. Artwork © Estate Günther Förg, Suisse  DACS 2020

‘Painting should be sexy’: the art of Günther Förg

By embracing materials for their own sake, the German artist Günther Förg broke thrilling new ground for abstraction. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Günther Förg was born in Füssen in 1952. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where he met the influential Informel  artist Karl Fred Dahmen, and came of age in a world that was disenchanted with painting and haunted by the ghosts of Modernism. 

Like many of his contemporaries, including his friends Martin KippenbergerAlbert Oehlen and Christopher Wool, Förg would devote his practice to wrestling with both.

In the 1980s, artistic convention was turned on its head. While many artists of the period championed wild, expressive idioms, Förg turned to geometric abstraction, producing works that were cerebral, sublime and playful. Through close readings of art history, he created a world of alchemical possibility, in which photography became a form of architecture, and painting moved closer to sculpture.

Günther Förg (1952-2013), each Untitled, each 1996. Each Gouache on paper. Each 35 x 49.5 cm. Estimate €10,000-15,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online
Günther Förg (1952-2013), each: Untitled, each: 1996. Each: Gouache on paper. Each: 35 x 49.5 cm. Estimate: €10,000-15,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art: Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online

‘Grey is nothing, not white, not black’

Förg’s earliest works stem from his student days. Oppressed by what he perceived as the dreary monotony of 1970s Germany, he began his celebrated series of grey monochromes, whose tactile, sensuous surfaces sowed the seeds for future works. ‘Grey is nothing,’ he explained, ‘not white, not black. Something in between. Not concerned with the figure. Something free.’

His early influences included Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Robert Ryman and Blinky Palermo — all artists who had sought to restructure the picture plane. After graduating in 1979, he embarked on a series of wall paintings: vast fields of colour that dispensed with the canvas altogether. It was an initial step in what would become a lifelong investigation: how to rescue art from the metaphysical realm, and align it with the material world.

Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 1985. Watercolour on paper. Sheet 30 x 21.5 cm. Estimate €3,000-5,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online
Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 1985. Watercolour on paper. Sheet: 30 x 21.5 cm. Estimate: €3,000-5,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art: Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online
Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 1985. Watercolour on paper. Sheet 30 x 21.5 cm. Estimate €3,000-5,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online
Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 1985. Watercolour on paper. Sheet: 30 x 21.5 cm. Estimate: €3,000-5,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art: Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online

From photography to sculpture

In a quest to get ‘closer to reality’, Förg moved away from painting for much of the 1980s. Instead, he embraced photography, taking Modernist architecture as his muse. His subjects, however, were only half the story. Encased in thick wooden frames and installed on his wall paintings, his photographs assumed an architectural quality, posing as ‘windows’ to the outside world.

As the decade progressed, Förg’s practice expanded to include sculpture. Once again, though, there was more to it than that. His bronze creations had the feel of both photography and painting, incised with lines and marks that resembled brushstrokes frozen in time. Like many of his later works, they were at once solid and ephemeral, infused with a sense of raw, organic beauty.

Working with sculptural materials such as wood, copper and lead

In the late 1980s, Förg returned to painting with renewed purpose. His works combined the sparse geometric language of his architectural photographs with his newfound interest in three-dimensional media, executed on sculptural materials such as wood, copper and lead. The latter would come to play a defining role in his practice.

Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 1988. Acrylic on lead on wood. 70⅞ x 47¼ in (180 x 120 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View post-war and contemporary works currently offered for private sale at Christie’s

Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 1988. Acrylic on lead on wood. 70⅞ x 47¼ in (180 x 120 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View post-war and contemporary works currently offered for private sale at Christie’s

Förg relished the unstable interaction between paint and his new volatile supports, embracing the mesmerising textures that animated his vast blocks of colour. In Untitled, 1988, above, structural clarity is held in tension with ethereal swathes of colour that hover elusively on the surface.

Förg would occasionally conceive these works as group installations: in February 2020, a rare suite of 22 lead paintings achieved the world record auction price for the artist at Christie’s, when it sold for £1,331,250.

The language of Minimalism and geometric abstraction

Over the years, Förg’s paintings became a forum for his witty, astute commentary on art history. While many seemed to evoke Barnett Newman’s ‘zips’ or Mark Rothko’s colour fields, the artist maintained a clear distance from the transcendental ambitions of his forebears. His works were not intended to transport the viewer to unknown dimensions, but to open their eyes to the wonders of material reality.

Förg also toyed with the language of Minimalism. Though reminiscent of works by Ellsworth Kelly or Donald Judd, his sensory surfaces railed against notions of elemental purity, instead celebrating the complex, unpredictable properties of their materials. Freed from its historical and ideological baggage, geometric abstraction no longer had to justify itself: in Förg’s world it existed for its own sake.

The ‘Window’, ‘Grid’ and ‘Spot’ paintings

Throughout his career, Förg delighted in blurring the divide between formal rigour and gestural freedom. In his later years, however, the physical joy of painting took over once and for all. His ‘Window’ and ‘Grid’ paintings were rendered with fluid, expressive brushwork, while his final ‘Spot’ paintings rejected all previous sense of order.

Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 2001. Acrylic on canvas. 200 x 200 cm. Estimate €100,000-150,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online
Günther Förg (1952-2013), Untitled, 2001. Acrylic on canvas. 200 x 200 cm. Estimate: €100,000-150,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art: Amsterdam, 2-18 June, Online

Exhibitions and critical acclaim

Förg exhibited widely during his lifetime — from Documenta IX in 1992 to significant museum presentations across the world — and has continued to garner critical acclaim since his death in 2013. 

In 2018, his major retrospective Günther Förg: A Fragile Beauty opened at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, subsequently travelling to the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas; in 2019, 30 works were shown at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac during the Venice Biennale.

Sign up today

Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

For all his intellectual bravura, Förg believed that art should be a source of uncomplicated pleasure. ‘Really, painting should be sexy,’ he claimed. ‘It should be sensual. These are things that will always escape the concept.’ Through virtuosic conversations between disciplines, genres and materials, he rescued abstraction from decades of posturing, unburdening it for future generations.