Newport Beach

Günther Förg

Newport Harbor Art Museum

“The successful work . . . ,” wrote Theodor Adorno, “is not one which resolves objective contradiction in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.” This concept of a dialectical totality whose constituent parts are perpetually autonomous is an apt theoretical model for Günther Förg’s project. Using interdependent series of paintings, sculptures, and photographs, Förg creates large-scale environments in which conventional hierarchies of object and space, support and surface, representation and non-representation, original and copy are dismantled in favor of a free interplay of contingent signs.

In a recent installation, Förg reiterated this notion of spacial and semantic intervention through his usual Derridean strategy of deference/difference. The museum’s main room was devoted to “The Newport Paintings,” 1988, a suite of 12 acrylic-on-lead nonrepresentational paintings. At first glance the works bear a close resemblance to Barnett Newman’s zip paintings of the ’50s, yet Förg’s obvious concern for process, materiality, and surrounding space as an integral component of the work clearly drains the pieces of any spiritual overtones. By eschewing the aura of autonomy and intuitive expression, Förg situates the work closer to Blinky Palermo’s dialectical picture-objects and Imi Knoebel’s site installations.

Förg encourages such de-mystification by exploiting the formal contradictions of the paintings themselves. The series never seems to coalesce either structurally or thematically. In certain cases, the lead ground acts as an autonomous color field; in others, it is completely covered by surface pigment. Verticals collide with horizontals, the symmetrical with the asymmetrical, centered compositions with the decentered. Color values are deliberately mismatched, so that any retinal “pop” is deadened. The lead itself is constantly at cross-purposes with the paint. With its soft wrinkles and folds, it draws attention to itself not only as an active material, but as a three-dimensional object closer to sculpture than flat, painterly support. The lead also undergoes chemical oxidation, invading the pigment so that normally sharp edges and pristine surfaces are blurred and muddied, as if Förg’s deliberate brushstrokes were in inevitable contradiction with the temporal course of natural processes.

However, any micrological analysis of “The Newport Paintings” is necessarily contingent upon a broader evaluation of the museum installation as a whole. A neighboring room of eight large-scale, glass-fronted photographs depicting Mies van der Rohe’s recently reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion, and an outdoor exhibition of bronze sculptures, serve to modify any reading of the paintings as an autonomous, discrete series. By decontextualizing the Mies/International Style aura in the form of mechanical reproduction, Förg creates a contiguous relationship between the fragmented, geometrical interiors, exaggerated depth and luxuriant surfaces—and the real space of the gallery wall itself. Mies’ Modernism(and by association, Barnett Newman’s) is reduced to the status of absent relic. This sense is reinforced by the photographs’ glass surfaces, in which the viewer and museum space are simultaneously reflected and superimposed on the picture, creating disjunctive windows onto an endlessly deferred historicism.

The sculptures consist of free-standing objects resembling totems or tombstones, and wall-mounted bas-reliefs cast from plaster molds. Förg embeds vertical and horizontal striations and gestural strokes in the soft, liquidy plaster surfaces, only to transform this sign of manual expression into hard, painted relics: frozen monuments to a deadened, deferred trace. Thus in the relationship between sculptures, paintings, and photographs, time and process become re-allegorizing agents, re-structuring antinomies within changing contexts of unresolved difference. For Förg, meaning must by necessity be ephemeral, temporarily produced by a combination of viewer and surrounding space.

Colin Gardner