Created after a decade’s hiatus from painting, Rivoli (1989) showcases Günther Förg’s renewed drive to “förge" a new position in abstraction. Over seven feet in height, the painting is a stunning example of the artist’s monumental, monochromatic canvases. In the present work, Förg explores the possibilities of juxtaposing only two colors. He bisects the surface into symmetrical, vertical planes: the left a deep red, the right a soft shade of sand. Förg’s laconic, brisk brushwork energizes the picture’s clean composition. Meanwhile, the artist’s use of line and texture emphasizes the physical, objective nature of his practice. Pure in color and space, the present work recalls the achievements of mid-century Abstract Expressionism: yet, its formal and conceptual roots in geometry and architecture set the work apart from these precedents.
Like a window or a door, Rivoli’s composition gestures to recognizable shapes while denying attachment to a particular concrete reality. Often included in the discourse on Modernist painting, Förg prioritizes color, texture, and form in the technical execution of his work. The present example bears a perceptible materiality and form, two concepts central to Förg’s oeuvre. While the vertical bands strike viewers as the main subject of this painting, color dominates the composition: the soft hue of the right half of the canvas balances the heavy red, while the sharp boundary between the two planes stages a pleasant interaction between them. The canvas may display a flatness of both color and surface, but Förg's masterful brushstrokes fill its otherwise strict geometric compositions with a palpable energy.
While Förg’s canvases resonate with the Color Field painters’ spiritually-driven works, the artist was more concerned with the material nature of his medium: “Newman and Rothko attempted to rehabilitate in their works a unity and an order that for them had been lost,” Förg explained. “For me, abstract art today is what one sees and nothing more” (G. Förg, quoted in Günther Förg: Paintings/Sculpture/Installation, exh. cat., Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1989, p. 6). In Rivoli, Förg embraces the mysterious and ambiguous qualities of painting, concentrating purely on color and composition. While many Abstract artists strived to differentiate themselves from previous artistic movements, Förg chose to reflect upon the past and link each stylistic technique in order to create a new, re-configured work. “He explores the process of painting with a continuous reflection on the medium and the exploitation of formal and theoretical motifs: transmission and paraphrasing as homage to the old and as the creation of something new” (B. Reiss, Günther Förg: 1987- 2011, exh. cat., Berlin, Galerie Max Hetzler, 2011, p. 18).
In the early 1980s, Förg abruptly gave up painting. Having vigorously practiced this medium during his years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, he wanted new inspiration and direction. He instead turned to photography. Förg used photography to capture and perceive the visual space, which gave a differing perspective from painting. His photos were purely documentary; they showcased the subject matter in a snapshot format, and simultaneously gave off elements of the sublime. He took interest photographing architectural forms, specifically buildings representing the modernist idea of Italian Rationalism. While traveling in Italy, Förg concentrated on the stairs, the edges, and the pure functionality of these architectural forms. The ideals behind geometry and abstraction seen in the architecture intrigued Förg, which then led him to implement these forms into several of his paintings. For example, a staircase leading up to outdoor structure could be transformed into vertical lines and placed upon a canvas, such as in Rivoli.
Before Rivoli was executed, Förg was creatively applying paint to metal. Well-known for his late 1980s Lead Series, Förg experimented with physicality and unique finish of lead when combined with paint. This series hoped to enhance his interest in surface and composition. In 1988, Förg once again changed his artistic output and circled back to monochromatic colors on canvas. “I said to myself, you have to change something…It was really uncanny. I said, now let’s do the same program on canvas, no more lead. And I gave up the lead. Which really brought things to a crunch” (G. Förg, quoted in K. Bell, Günther Förg: A Fragile Beauty, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 2018, p. 217). Rivoli, executed in 1989, is one of the first examples of Förg’s return to acrylic on canvas.
Rivoli is a striking example of a pivotal moment in Günther Förg’s expansive career, when the possibilities of painting were reinvigorated after years of absence. Ranging from photography, to paint on lead, and finally to paint on canvas, Förg excelled in experimentation and change. In creating his abstract, geometrical canvases, he critiqued the fluid practices of modernism, firmly grounding each work in painting’s palpable, material elements. Though rigorously composed, Rivoli does indeed show the hand of the artist: by drawing a line and filling in the gaps, Förg insists upon the enduring vitality of painting and his place within it.