New York

Günther Förg

Luhring Augustine & Hodes

Like many of his German contemporaries (Imi Knoebel, Gerhard Richter, the late Blinky Palermo), Günther Förg has been trying to salvage abstract painting from its decorative fate by exploring the material and architectural basis of an image rather than the veneer of its surface. In his first solo exhibition in New York, Förg presented eight paintings on copper and on lead-covered wood panels, and five unique reliefs cast in bronze. The bronze reliefs and the two largest lead paintings were shown in the main room, installed conventionally as individual works, whereas the works in the rear room were treated as an integrated installation. There, six painted panels—two copper paintings and a suite of four lead ones—were hung on four walls as a unified group. Each lead panel is divided in half horizontally and painted in two distinct colors. Although the tones vary from panel to panel, the top halves are painted in flat green hues ranging from teal to olive, and the bottom halves range among darker blues and reds. Each of the two copper panels is streaked with six uneven vertical striations—one green the other orange—that leave most of the untreated copper support visible.

Visually, these pantings are seductive in their familiarity. The reductivist tradition of juxtaposed monochrome fields has been historically entrenched in American painting by such artists as Mark Rothko and Brice Marden. The pantings are thus easily digested as they appertain morphologically to a preestablished code of “Modernism.” Förg critiques this conventional treatment of painting as surface by using paint as a substance rather than as a local coloring, and by treating the painting's support sculpturally as an active counterpart to the painted surface. This is evident in the wrinkles of the stretched lead and copper sheets, which are highlighted rather than concealed by the paint's mat finish. Furthermore, because lead absorbs paint, Förg can cover the surface and still maintain the integrity of its lead support. Similarly, when handling the copper, a less absorptive material, he reveals unpainted areas to demonstrate its materiality. Förg's choices of color also relate symbolically to their support. The orange and pale green paint on the copper paintings are analogous to copper's natural color and to its color when oxidized.

These panels, most of which are more than 6 feet high, were installed several inches above floor level (except for the smallest ones). Accordingly, the viewer confronted them bodily like doorways or other architectonic structures decided to human scale. By emphasizing the paintings’ physical, material presence, Förg presents his audience with an unmediated formulation of reality instead of one translated through an esthetic scrim. As a logical extension of this concern, his bronzes made from plaster casts assert themselves to the extent that they can no longer be confused as images. They are petrified imprints of the processes involved in sculpting with plaster. These carved and gouged wall reliefs completely integrate surface quality with coloring and texture. They require no mediating principle to reveal the relationship between their surface, medium, and support. Like the painted metal panels, they are rescued from self-referentiality by their adherence to an unadulterated materialism. In so doing, Förg transcends the inevitable symbolic status of re-presentation with a presentation that is capable of transcending cultures barriers. Förg's paintings and bas-reliefs function not as mere paradigms of German art's ontology for an American audience, but as subtle critiques of American Color Field painting. However, because of our ethnocentric desire to codify the world “in our own image,” the critique probably goes unnoticed. The inevitable reading of Förg's paintings as images turns his installation into a house of mirrors. It offers the American audience its own familiar face, one that subtly disguises the transparent skin of our own esthetic values and the emptiness beneath it.

Kirby A. Gookin