December 5: We live amongst the tokens of Modernism, the Eames lounges, Barcelona chairs, architecture, interiors and design of the ‘mid-century’. The fad extends well back, before Mad Men, though I guess some only ‘got it’ after seeing that series celebrating tiresome American machismo. In some ways the 6os were just a 50s revival in greys, while the 70s added burnt orange and got it all wrong. Now, we feel, we’ve got it just right. We feel perfectly comfortable with it…and please, please don’t go reviving Memphis style!
That’s why Günther Förg’s oeuvre appears difficult. He was born on this date in 1952 and died 61 years later on this same date in 2013. He confusingly combines massive paintings with photographs of architecture from oblique angles. He seizes upon the gallery space as part of the work itself, painting over gallery walls, integrating doorways and windows and using framed glass over selected works for its reflective recursion of the space. His incorporated walls are often painted in signature, slightly ‘off’ yellow, blue, or red. In that lies the clue to his oeuvre; an engagement with the forms of Modernism while distancing and objectifying their ideologies.
It is rare to see photography by an artist exhibited alongside, or intermingled with, their paintings and installations that is so successful, something achieved by few bar perhaps Canadian Ian Wallace who sets the emptiness of the monochrome painting against the plenitude of photography of the street in his At the Intersection of Painting and Photography retrospective exhibition in 2013. However, while both artists exhibit painted panels with photographs, their agendas are very different; Wallace is a conceptualist, while
Our reaction to Günther Förg’s paintings might initially be as it would on seeing a Barnett Newman or Ellsworth Kelly, but the streaks of foreign color in his two-toned painting do not derive from an Abstract Expressionist impulse nor from a Colour Field formalism but result from a programmatic covering of surface…he works like a sloppy house painter. His 1970s paintings on lead moulded around a painting stretcher saw the coming-out of this approach; the monochrome paint inadequately conceals the metal and its purpose is merely a revelation of his process, nothing more. The source of their colour might be Le Corbusier’s famous housing block Unité d’Habitation in Marseille and their subject matter is architecture.
The photographs are similarly dual purpose. In the Greene Naftali gallery retrospective exhibition, New York, February 20 – March 28, 2015, twelve large-scale photographs were included; the last of Förg’s monochrome photographs of architecture made in 2000. Again the subject matter is architecture, but of an eccentric kind.
The pictures are no more artful than amateur snapshots but their scale compresses the forms into to something combining the parthenon, the mausoleum and the panopticon into an über-fascist hybrid. In fact the pictures were made at a rest stop along the A39 motorway in eastern France of a miniaturisation of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Enlightenment-era Cité idéale into an entertaining, kitsch tourist diversion; somewhere to stop for a sandwich. In pointing to Ledoux by the motorway Förg joins numbers of artists critiquing modernism’s doomed utopias; almost a genre unto itself. However, given the time elapsed since he made the works, Förg can be identified as an important pioneer of such practices.
But his photographic work was about more than just critical reflection, it was formative. After adopting the medium, mainly deadpan, giant scale portraiture, into his practice, Förg increasingly chose architectural subjects.
Starting with Adalberto Libera’s Villa Malaparte, on Capri, his interest was confirmed and from then on he made photos of modern architecture, moving from Italian Architetura Razionale to Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the architecture of the Russian Constructivism. Further rich sources he found in the IG-Farben-Haus by Hans Poelzig, the Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and finally, Josef Plecnik and some exiled German architects in Turkey. Dealing with architecture so extensively led him to the conception of wall paintings.
Günther Förg’s architectural photography is radically distinguished from those of the mid-century professional Julius Shulman in which the beholder’s awareness of the spatial depth and siting of the structure is heightened to the point of vertigo, but anchored by the strictly rectilinear rendition, aided by the capacity of the large format camera to shape the perspective with its shifts and swings (as demonstrated, left, in these examples from a Linhof camera manual of the era).
Förg’s Villa Malaparte image evokes the film still, and in fact it is shot at the location used in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film, Contempt. The angle Förg uses distorts the reverse-perspective stairway so that it appears almost rectangular, but tilts the shot, unbalancing the running figure.
In his imagery of Modernist architecture at Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin in 2012 the painter/photographer uses an anti-aesthetic approach, with amateur tilting, randomly zooming in and out, framing the banal clutter of the surroundings that reflects the sometimes dilapidated state some of these buildings are in.
By contrast, Bauhaus students in their photographic pranking at their new quarters demonstrate a Modernist expressiveness in their own oblique angles of view and Dutch tilts quite at odds with the professional depiction of the Masters’ family accommodation at Dessau.
From a photographic viewpoint then, we can penetrate the enigma of Günther Förg’s seemingly impenetrable iconography to see the critique that he raises in its combination with painting and to enjoy what is an original and quite powerful aesthetic beyond facile satire.