New York

Günther Förg, Untitled, 1990, acrylic on lead, 110 1/4 × 63". Skarstedt.

Günther Förg, Untitled, 1990, acrylic on lead, 110 1/4 × 63". Skarstedt.

Günther Förg

Greene Naftali/Skarstedt

Günther Förg, Untitled, 1990, acrylic on lead, 110 1/4 × 63". Skarstedt.

The work of German artist Günther Förg, who died in 2013, has been shown infrequently in New York in recent years. So the simultaneous presentations of his art earlier this year—at Greene Naftali and Skarstedt—constituted a noteworthy event, one that followed major institutional revisitings of his contemporaries Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger.

The exhibition at Greene Naftali was divided into two parts. In the gallery’s ground-floor space, visitors encountered ten large monochrome canvases from 1991, each painted a modish shade—olive, lime, and a kind of pale burnt umber, for example. If these cool hues evoke the color schemes of postwar German consumer culture (in ways reminiscent of some of Blinky Palermo’s fabric paintings, for example), their source was in fact something significantly more highbrow: the lush polychromy of Le Corbusier’s famous housing block Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. Although the immense scale of the paintings threatens to envelop us—they are 114 x 114"—that pure immersion is held at bay. White margins of varying lengths run along one or more borders in each work, suggesting quasi-photographic techniques of cropping and zooming. Color, here, is referential and framed.

In the Greene Naftali exhibition’s second part, located in the eighth-floor galleries, visitors encountered twelve large-scale photographs. Shot in 2000, these works are the last of a series of black-and-white prints Förg made. Like the monochromes, their subject is architecture: various views of a complex of eccentrically shaped buildings, including an isolated neoclassical column, a pavilion composed of intersecting cylinders, and a ziggurat. The casualness of the pictures suggests amateur snapshots, yet their compressed depths of field and opaque meaning also point to something darker: a paranoid hypervigilance, the voyeuristic view of a sniper-rifle scope, Julius Shulman meets Call of Duty: Black Ops. In fact the pictures portray a rest stop along the A39 motorway in eastern France, designed after sketches by the eighteenth-century neoclassical proto-modernist architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Far from serving their original function in Ledoux’s Enlightenment-era Cité idéale, this complex of buildings—erected long after the architect’s death—operates instead as a boosterish civic monument and a touristic diversion: mildly entertaining, weirdly alienating, a place to buy a snack. In much the same way that Förg’s monochromes quasi-photographically “picture” Corbusier’s color scheme, then, these structures are a representation—or, rather, a kitsch simulation—of an earlier era’s failed utopia.

Of course, in the years since these works were made, the act of critiquing modernism’s doomed utopias (for which architecture often serves as an easy stand-in) has become an ingrained artistic impulse—basically a genre unto itself. Today, it mostly feels stale. Förg, for his part, may be understood as an important forebear of such practices, but his work was about more than just critical reflection. See, for example, the show at Skarstedt, which featured nine of the artist’s Lead Paintings. Executed on metal sheets that had been wrapped like canvas over wooden stretchers, these compositions in acrylic reanimate a litany of moribund styles of modernist abstraction. There are hints of Color Field, hard edge, and Constructivism, and echoes of Palermo, Rothko, and Mondrian. By far the best pieces at Skarstedt were Untitled III and Untitled, both 1990, installed on the gallery’s second floor. Left unpainted but for slender Barnett Newman–esque zips, the expansive lead surfaces yield a texture that is surprisingly delicate, saturated with milky, oxidized clouds that merge with a darkly obdurate sheen. Considered alongside the monochromes at Greene Naftali—whose luxurious brushwork builds up roiling, cataclysmic fields of color—these works reveal Förg as an artist who was deeply curious about material and its possibilities for aesthetic seduction.

Lloyd Wise