New York

Günther Förg, Untitled, 2008, acrylic and oil on canvas, 9' 6 1/8“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Günther Förg, Untitled, 2008, acrylic and oil on canvas, 9' 6 1/8“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Günther Förg

Greene Naftali Gallery

Günther Förg, Untitled, 2008, acrylic and oil on canvas, 9' 6 1/8“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

A fixture of the storied Cologne scene of the 1980s, Günther Förg is still recognized in this country for what he produced during that formative decade: Blinky Palermo–inspired paintings on lead, whose puckered surfaces register raw materiality, even as the monochrome bands applied to the supports provide a sensuousness that all but negates the lead’s astringent qualities. Given the rough-hewn sophistication of these works, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are the output for which Förg is chiefly known. Yet they may also loom so large because Förg has not had a solo show in New York in over a decade, which has had the infelicitous effect of reifying his prior engagements. This recent exhibition at Greene Naftali, his first at the gallery, should therefore go some way toward bringing Förg into the present for American audiences on other, less decisively historical (that is to say, historicist) terms. If anything, the abstract canvases in this show, all made between 2007 and 2009, are unencumbered by reference or metaphysics; instead of revisiting modernism or Förg’s own past efforts, they aspire to a kind of presentness trained on the here and now.

This is not to suggest, however, that the works at Greene Naftali represent an uncharacteristic or unmoored position. On the contrary, they are very much in tune with the artist’s performance of selfhood, simultaneously on conspicuous display elsewhere (Förg recently enjoyed the company of Martin Kippenberger and others in the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary galleries’ “Cologne in the 1980s” room). Via the display of the artist’s signature in the top corner of each canvas, the works exhume the cult of personality, and, more significantly, they take up the elemental act of painting, so critical to Förg’s work from the lead paintings on. A kind of Twombly-esque scribble in many works evinces the brushstroke, pictorializing the activity of artmaking. Like Twombly’s scrawl, which frequently approximates language without performing a semantic function, Förg’s brushstrokes—his atomistic, if aggregated, marks—also evoke writing, but even more, the hypothetical arrangement of colors and shapes into a legible composition.

Tracing the paintings chronologically through the installation, one can follow the emergence and subsequent effacement of the scribble motif. In the two earliest works—both untitled canvases from 2007—the (so to speak) signature style of most of the grouping is not yet codified. One situates riotously colored swaths amid tic-tac-toe grids and atop a washy ground, while the second incorporates squiggles, drips, smudges, and a seemingly unspooling gridded net. Beginning in canvases from 2008, the backgrounds flatten out, better serving as grounds for irregularly applied curlicues, runny streaks, and geometric blocks. Ultimately, however, the brushwork—treated as both means and iconography—is the subject here, and the picture, if there is such a thing, assumes the look of a palette. None of the paintings imply depth, just lateral movement. Even when Förg introduces overlays of color, as well as monochromatic bricks topped with linear tracery, the paintings fail to recede into illusionistic space. It is only when, in 2009, he entombs one of the colored pieces beneath a veil of gray that he succeeds in claiming physical depth as coeval with the time that passed during the painting’s production. And if the lead supports in Förg’s early paintings served as light-absorbing primer, the artist has now employed darkness as a frontal scrim, whose semitransparent application atop magentas, evergreens, and cherries dims their intensity and indicates a possible return to a more monochrome approach. This is where the show leaves us: in 2009, not 1989—a better vantage from which to imagine what still might come.

Suzanne Hudson