BY Andreas Schlaegel in Reviews | 08 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

Günther Förg

Galerie Max Hetzler

BY Andreas Schlaegel in Reviews | 08 FEB 12

Installation view, 2011

Günther Förg’s monochrome canvases – structured by just a few bars of colour – could easily be dismissed as two-dimensional eye candy, as harmless, non-committal abstract painting. But dismissing them would be a mistake; his works are deliberately designed not only to draw in the viewer but also to involve the surrounding space – as was demonstrated in this exhibition, a proper retrospective with 26 works, some of them huge, made since 1987.

It is fair to say that this show was the most solid one presented by Galerie Max Hetzler to date at its new premises in a former factory space, due for the most part to the casual, serene setting around Förg’s works. This sense of calm and the perfect synchronization of architecture and art resulted in precisely drawn lines of reference between the various groups of works. These included the three-part, 12×3 metre Coney Island (2000), which has a characteristically thin layer of paint, in bold primary colours: a field of cobalt blue, surrounded by a frame of black and divided into five panels by four vertical bands of bright red. The strict symmetry of this gigantic painting was echoed in smaller works, like in the narrow, pale stripes of the delicately shaded Williamsburg (2000), but the symmetry was also counterbalanced by a new 21-metre long mural in light blue and oxblood, which was made specially for the show. Above this work, the artist hung five enormous photographs of the architecture of Italian fascism: the buildings of various natural science faculties and the main lecture hall at the Città Universitaria in Rome, built by Benito Mussolini’s favourite architect Marcello Piacentini (Città Universitaria, 1990).

Through their quasi-architectural format, the photographs seemed to be aiming for an overwhelming impact, similar to the pompous, travertine-clad façades they depict. But rather than following the axes of the architecture, Förg chose the upward-looking perspective of a passer-by. The everyday remains visible at the edges. Although they don’t look like wobbly amateur snapshots, the pictures are hardly contrived, obviously taken quickly, with a 35mm camera and short exposure times. The extreme enlargement of the prints reveals not additional detail but the graininess of the film. Stepping up close to these works, one was confronted by a mirror image of oneself and the surrounding space, since Förg’s photographs are not framed with the anti-reflective glass used for most exhibitions. With this trick, he really does capture viewers, drawing them into the history of fascism whlie constructing a dialogue to highlight each individual’s capacity for memory and reflection itself – especially in connection with the highly ambivalent motifs behind the glass.

In an interview in frieze in October 2003, Albert Oehlen noted approvingly that Förg ‘creates sublime works from something that is already sublime’. This is especially true of his painting, for which the artist borrows from modernist classics, as in a series of four untitled pictures from 1993 which reduce Piet Mondrian’s Constructivism to loose, free-floating grid structures recalling wallpaper patterns or 1950s kitchen towels. One is sometimes reminded of Barnett Newman’s large-format horizontal canvases, while the seriality and technique of the works in acrylic on lead – the show included two large untitled works from 1990 – evoke the late acrylic-on-aluminium works of Blinky Palermo, such as his ‘Coney Island II’ and ‘To The People of New York City’ cycles of 1975 and 1976 respectively. At the end of the show, there were even cheerful-looking dabs of paint, scribbles and blotches in three untitled works (2007–9) which recalled Cy Twombly’s oeuvre. But in the exhibition’s most recent painting, Ohne Titel (Untitled, 2009), Förg almost negates this cheerful world of blotches by covering the work in an agitated grey. Here, the patches of colour shimmer through weakly, creating a new painterly, almost narrative, dimension not seen in his previous work.

Retrospectively, the reason for the continued importance of Förg’s oeuvre becomes clear: The evolution of his direct, subjective engagement with the aesthetic of the sublime – conducted without fear of stereotypical taboos – oscillates between appropriation and homage, yet Förg does so without any ironic quotations or other such cheap distancing techniques. Instead, he throws mythical ballast overboard and appropriates picture-making strategies in a way that makes them look new.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Andreas Schlaegel is an artist and writer living in Berlin.