Seen in public for the first time since its creation, Günther Förg’s Untitled (1990) is an enthralling and beautiful suite of twenty-two paintings. Each measuring 60 by 40 centimetres, the panels are executed in Förg’s signature medium of acrylic on lead. Their compositions are serene and orderly – rectilinear bars, windows, or stripes of solid colour – and, although some echo one another, each is unique, with no one format repeated. They share a lyrical palette of blues, yellows, browns, greens and oranges, offset by notes of gleaming silver. Rare in its great number of parts – one other twenty-two-panel work, the masterpiece Untitled (1991), is held at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, where it was a highlight of the major retrospective Günther Förg: A Fragile Beauty in 2018 – the group assembles an orchestral play of similarity and difference. Förg seems to look back over the lead paintings that are so central to his practice, forging a grand, reflective compendium into one majestic work. Ranging from ripples, dents and pockmarks to sleek flatness, the lead’s pliable, uneven texture shows through the pigment in spectacular variety, creating an alive, almost sculptural surface; the paint shifts between fine washes and thick layers, chalkboard-matt and gleaming gloss. A landmark work in Förg’s prolonged investigation into the limits of painting, Untitled epitomises his unique synthesis of conceptual intrigue and physical sensuality. As he observed, ‘one could say quite concretely that the composition of my lead pictures is anonymous whereas the manner in which they have been painted is expressive’ (G. Förg, quoted in D. Dietrich, ‘An Interview with Günther Förg’, The Print Collector’s Newsletter, Vol. 20, No. 3, July–August 1989, p. 82).
As a rich symphony of contradictions, the lead paintings were vital to Förg’s intricate, protean and multifaceted oeuvre. He cross-examined painting as a problematic genre, culling tropes of colour, composition and gesture from their place in traditional Modernist narratives. More complex than pastiche – ‘I am closer to origins than quotations’, the artist once said – works like Untitled display a blend of appropriation, influence and interrogation in relation to the work of artists who have gone before (G. Förg, quoted in K. Ottman, ‘Günther Förg’, Journal of Contemporary Art, vol. 2, no. 1, 1989, p. 75). The stripes appear to revive the ‘zips’ of Barnett Newman; yet where Newman’s sublime chromatic fields expand to seeming infinity, Förg’s colours are occluded in serial, delimited zones of dense metal. If the panels’ chromatic edges echo the hard-edged forms of American Minimalists like Donald Judd, they are undermined by Förg’s delight in finding elegant rhythm, tempo and assonance within his chorus of hues and shape, and his compositional wink at the concept of the painting as window or door. The panes of lead are ambivalent: neither merely objects nor entirely paintings, neither mystical nor bathetic. As with much of Förg’s work – including his large-scale 1980s photographs of buildings, which were framed to echo windows and glazed to incorporate reflections of the viewer – they also operate in dialogue with their surroundings. As Catherine Quéloz has put it, ‘The work of Günther Förg projects the spectator into a multidimensional space in which a variety of practices (painting, photography, sculpture, architecture) constitute parts of a single but divided and fragmentary text’ (C. Quéloz, ‘At the Crossroads of Disciplines: An Economy of Regard’, Parkett 26, 1990, p. 56).
For all its sharp logic, Förg’s approach is not aridly theoretical. His practice is underpinned by a pure joy in the act of creation, and open to the shifting, variation and cross-pollination of ideas. Even as he explores the collapse of the Modernist paradigm, he revels in its profusion of modes and methods. ‘Some works are concerned with dissolution,’ he reflected in 1989, ‘but there are also the reliefs and freestanding sculptures, where I have all the diversity and richness that I negate in the other works. It all belongs together, and I enjoy the possibility of going back and forth between them. Sherrie Levine’s art is pure quotation. I enjoy painting. For example, I very much like the work of Baselitz, who is interested in an abstract expressionism. People are often amazed at that, and they have accused me of having returned to traditional painting. But painting is really important. There are, of course, times when one negates that, but today I see my work as more aligned with the classical tradition in art’ (G. Förg, quoted in D. Dietrich, ‘An Interview with Günther Förg’, The Print Collector’s Newsletter, Vol. 20, No. 3, July–August 1989, pp. 82-83). Keenly conceptual yet immediate in its sensory appeal, Untitled sees Förg plumbing the very foundations of modern painting, and finding strains of beauty both in and beyond the surface.