Günther Förg. Painting should be sexy

[07.07.2020]

What others take for granted is a problem for us”… this rough translation from the title of a 1998 exhibition of Förg’s work (Was andern selbstverständlich, ist uns Problem) at Mönchengladbach’s Abteiberg Museum could serve as a ‘motto’ for Förg’s entire œuvre. From his first black and gray monochromes in the 1970s to his colored polka dots in later years, as well as his photographs of buildings, Günther Förg (who died in 2013 aged 61) was a tireless experimenter, not just with his painted images but also with his supports which including lead and metal. Nor did he feel obliged to respect the traditional compartments of art history. His works often merged or juxtaposed several media, pushing the limits of painting to those of sculpture. He seems to have been singularly unconcerned with the outline of shapes, preferring to focus more on patterns that turned into leitmotifs (grays and grid-like lines in his painting, architecture in his photos and faces in his sculptures). He worked on an idea or a series until he literally exhausted the concept.

Heritage and freedom…

Günther FÖRG studied art at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Bored by what he describes as Germany’s dreary monotony during the 1970s and inspired by the paintings of Cy TWOMBLY, he began his famous series of gray monochromes, whose tactile and sensual surfaces laid the foundations for future work in a clearly conceptualist vein. As he himself said, “Gray is nothing: neither white nor black. Something in between. No relation to lines. Something free”. Before Förg incorporated color into his paintings, his exclusive use of gray, for a time, represented a neutral undercoat that formed the foundation of his works.

His first influences included artists working on image restructuring: Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Robert Ryman and Blinky Palermo. After graduating in 1979, he embarked on a series of murals: vast fields of colors that completely dispensed with canvas. Often working on a giant scale – the New York Times once described his paintings as “obliquely grandiose” – he constantly pushed creative practice to its limits in an attempt to reconcile the metaphysical vocation of art with its deeply material essence.

In his quest to get ever-closer to reality, Förg abandoned painting for much of the 1980s and turned to photography, making modernist architecture his preferred subject. From the Bauhaus structures in Israel to fascist architecture in Italy, he became interested in geometry, playing on unusual perspectives via sharp angles with off-center framing and grainy image textures. But the subjects of his photos were only the tip of the iceberg, because Förg liked to incorporate the pictures into the environments from which they came, so that large-scale photographs, sometimes embedded in thick wooden frames and glazed to integrate the reflections of their viewers, became architectural components, playing the role of ‘windows’ open to the outside world.

Despite all the intellectual research that innervates his work, Günther Förg thought that art should be a source of simple pleasures. “Ideally, painting should be sexy… he said in a conversation with David Ryan in 1997. It should be sensual. These are aspects that will always elude conceptualization.” Via a permanent dialogue between disciplines, materials and forms, Günther Förg released abstraction from an increasingly rigid framework for the benefit of future generations of artists. Considered one of the most important German artists of the post-war period, his work is today exchanged on the auction market at price levels that reflect the importance of his contribution.

« The mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth will no doubt remedy Förg’s lack of exposure in Asia via its Hong Kong branch « 

Günther Förg achieved international success at a very early age, exhibiting all over the world when he was just 22. In the 1980s, his works were already travelling to exhibitions in Chicago, London and San Francisco. Then, in 1992, when Förg was 40, his work was shown at Germany’s documenta 9 in Cassel confirming him as one of the most remarkable artists of the contemporary scene. Since that exposure at one of the world’s most important international art events, his work has grown in stature and has been integrated into the collections of the world’s principal museums.

His work has also entered lots of prestigious private Contemporary art collections with the support of major galleries like Almine Rech, Max Hetzler, Massimo De Carlo, White Cube and last but not least, Hauser & Wirth, which has represented his estate since 2018. Indeed, Hauser & Wirth are successfully maintaining the artist in the news via a catalogue raisonné project and a superb exhibition that recently opened in Zürich (Günther Förg, Surface of Bronze, until 31 July 2020).

Meanwhile his auction market has reflected strong demand with results over the past 20 years showing just as much international interest as that expressed for Günther. While his best works sell in Germany, the UK and the United States, there is buoyant demand elsewhere in Europe and even a few timid results in Japan. A real breakthrough in Asia has yet to come, but the Almine Rech gallery started this work by presenting Förg’s works in a group exhibition of abstract art in Shanghai last year, and the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth will no doubt remedy Förg’s lack of exposure in Asia via its Hong Kong branch.

gunther forg - indice des prixGünther Förg – Price index (copyright Artprice.com)

Remarkable price increases…

Förg’s prices shot up after his death, crossing the $500,000 threshold for the first time in 2015 at Phillips in New York (Ohne Titel, 1990). A few months later his auction record rose again (by +63%) reaching $815,000 at the same auctioneer for a set of rhythmic and colorful works from 1994 (Untitled). The publicity around that new record prompted a new wave of interest among major collectors and his prices started to climb again, passing the million dollars line in 2019. Indeed, 2019 was a key year with 30 of his works shown at the 58th Venice Biennale (Förg in Venice, Palazzo Contarini Polignac) after an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s New York branch (Günther Förg. Works from 1986-2007). The strong price inflation continued into 2020 with a new auction record hammered at Christie’s in London: a formidable set of 22 paintings on lead and wood (Untitled, 1990) fetched $1.7 million.

After the general shutdown of the art market caused by the Coronavirus, nothing suggests that the artist’s price standing has suffered from the crisis: fifteen works – mainly prints and photographs – are being offered in public sales this month (July). In particular, on 9 July, Sotheby’s Hong Kong will be offering a large work measuring 2 x 3 metres produced in 2008, with patches of colour on a gray background, estimated between $250,000 and $380,000.