Elegantly reductive and visually striking, Günther Förg’s Untitled is a prime example of the lead paintings, the most celebrated series in the artist’s interdisciplinary oeuvre, with others housed in major collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Over four imposingly-scaled panels, each clad in sheets of the dense metal, Förg crafts a harmonic consonance of colour: fields of dappled cobalt and burnished chestnut unfold in a chromatic dialogue with planes of violet, saffron and buff. This hedonistic array of pigments is modulated and unified by the natural patina of the lead support, a shimmering hue between grey and blue, which shadows the thinly-applied paint.
In Untitled, Förg delights in the visual oscillation between two and three dimensions. The use of lead, with its heavy, dull, inert nature, creates objects which impress their physical presence upon the viewer. The malleable sheet metal undulates, crinkles and furrows, and, wrapping around the support, forms a rounded edge, softening the transition between the front and sides of the painting. These subtle, tactile variations create a work which has a presence in literal space, recalling the artist’s powerful reliefs in bronze. Yet Förg keeps the physicality of his paintings in check by dividing up his paintings into serial, geometric configurations of broad areas of colour. In the artist’s own words, ‘colours emerge, the paintings become more open, and even the material’s arbitrary elements on the surface and in the patina become part of the picture’ (G. Förg, quoted in Günther Förg, Paintings on Lead, exh. cat., Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 2006, p. 7). The thinly applied pigment, deposited and rapidly manipulated, seems to dematerialise as the surface reveals itself through the brushstrokes, creating a sensation of weightlessness paradoxical to the monumental heaviness of the lead panels.
Förg approaches painting with a historical self-consciousness that tinges his output with irony and ambiguity. In its exploration of the complex relationship between colour and form, Untitled recalls the work of artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, which Förg thoroughly admired. Yet unlike these painters, whose enquiries were underpinned by an exploration of the spiritual and mystical aspects of art, Förg has no interest in transcending reality: ‘Newman and Rothko attempted to rehabilitate in their works a unity and an order that for them had been lost,’ he explained. ‘For me, abstract art today is what one sees and nothing more’ (G. Förg, quoted in Günther Förg, Paintings on Lead, exh. cat., Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 2006, pp. 5-6). With Untitled, Förg masterfully gives rise to a dynamic object that incorporates both the haptic and optic, creating a mesmerising example of the artist’s distinctive practice, which remains a crucial maverick in the conversation of post-War abstraction.