Günther Förg’s relation to his antecedents is elliptical, less a blithe reference, in the typical manner of contemporary postmodernism, than the testing of a distance, as in the pressure applied by a paintbrush to a sheet of lead, or the tremor of a hand holding a 35mm camera.

In this survey exhibition, the gridded windows of Hetzler’s gallery—a factory loft built in the early 20th century—echoed the correspondingly geometric divisions of Förg’s paintings and the stark right angles of the neoclassical modernist architecture depicted in a series of photographs. The installation suggested how Förg’s art establishes its scale in relation to an ideal architectural frame. Four 8-foot-high color images of Marcello Piacentini’s Sapienza University of Rome (all from the series “Città Universitaria,” 1990) were hung on a freestanding wall, painted half red oxide and half cerulean blue (Untitled, 2011). These color fields were intermediary elements tying the presentness of the art, and the gallery interior in which it was hung, to the more remote images of the architecture in the photographs. But the primary relation to the cultural past is one of distance and disjunction.

Modernism is Förg’s essential theme, but it is notable how often the modernist architecture he refers to has fascist connotations—whether it is the IG Farben building in Frankfurt, built in 1930, and used for Nazi research projects, or Piacentini’s campus, built under the auspices of Mussolini. By inference, a vantage opens onto the barbarous ideologies which the metaphysical ideals of modernism have been brought to serve. These connections become a further manifestation of the remoteness of Förg’s subjects, and also complicate his relation to them, establishing a yearning for a modernist ideal that is rendered all the more unattainable by its historical associations. Förg brings materialistic values to his photographs—the stubborn grain of an image blown up too large for its resolution; the reflection of the viewer in the museum glass that seals it—as though to comprehend our having fallen from an ideal by repeatedly acknowledging the material conditions it aimed to transcend.

Two untitled paintings from 1990, which faced you upon entering the gallery, are explicit homages to Barnett Newman. In one, a lead ground is concisely traversed by two masked-off “zips” of pale lilac acrylic. Newman’s metaphysical ambitions are grounded by the self-declaring substantiality of the lead, both denying illusionistic space and intimating it with a nuanced gray, like the silver gelatin of a photograph.

Until around the year 2000, Förg’s paintings have geometric structures, but with interstices between zones painted freehand. His workaday application denies any preoccupation with the esthetics of painterly gesture, while simultaneously converting that nonchalance into its own esthetic. In the past decade, the geometric compositions have dissolved, and gesture has been liberated, exposing the sensuality that has long characterized the artist’s process. The materiality of paint, and Förg’s manipulation of it, has always been an index of the human subject, but one that remains an everyman subject, because Förg’s mark-making is as impersonal as it is inimitable.

Photo: Günther Förg: Untitled, 1990, acrylic on lead on wood, approx. 9 by 51⁄4 feet; at Max Hetzler.