For many years, Jutta Koether drained blood and love from the color red. In her paintings, that untouchable hue became atmosphere for a genus of motifs: grinning faces, penises, piles of fruit, women in dresses radiating magical solar bursts, and heavy words like “ANGER.” Sometimes, horrible things appeared, like an ongoing rape in a forest clearing. Elsewhere, a Poussin painting was caricatured in orange, with a faint lightning flash transformed into a jagged emblem. Guts are required to dissolve cliché into strange, complicated feeling, as Koether has done. Hers is a complicated, amoral world.
It’s easy to understand why Bob Nickas suggests, in his essay “How to Write About … Jutta Koether,” that critics of Koether’s work should suck it up and “admit defeat.” You’ll never catch up: to the volume of her images, to the destabilizing combination of sincerity and posture with which they’re executed, or to the discourse she has made for them (her novella f was published by Sternberg Press in 2015.)
From across the room, the paintings in Zodiac Nudes, at Berlin’s Galerie Buchholz, approximate Renoir as imitated by Max Beckman, then exfoliated with an electric sander. Up close, garish fluorescence softly counterpoints wildflower color. In one room, there is a row of heart-shaped canvases. Some are slathered with cheap craft paint – pink, metallic, and tar-black – others are decorated with Cezannean apples. Daniel Buchholz himself picked the exact moment when I was gazing at these hearts to walk into the room and drop a gushing lullaby in my ear. “Only Jutta,” he crooned, “could manage this combination of Broodthaers, Freud, Balthus, and Bond” – all of whom appear in the show.
To look at Koether’s work in context is to experience cognitive claustrophobia. Her paintings assimilate subject matter in droves, and have been written on by a coterie of powerful critics and historians, making it difficult to develop, or even feign, an independent opinion. Initially, Buchholz’s glowing panegyric charmed me. A period of resentment followed, during which I felt as if I’d been hypnotized by a swift salesman. But now, looking back, I have to admit there was a different kind of glint, his praise seeming both uniquely sincere, and correct.
Broodthaers, Freud, Balthus, and Bond exist incognito in Koether’s canvases, behind a scrawling style that obfuscates identity. In an accompanying essay, Isabelle Graw – an authoritative theorist of contemporary art – contextualizes these figures, elaborating on their significance within Koether’s personal pantheon. This is a familiar role for Graw, who has written on Koether’s work so often (four times now) that she seems less a critic than rhetorical collaborator.
The subject of one large painting, Freud Broodthaers #2 (2016), is a man who floats upright in the painting’s center, with arms folded overhead. His eyes are closed – maybe because he fell asleep on Lucian Freud’s model stand, or maybe because he’s embarrassed about his vulnerable posture, like a business traveler in an airport x-ray scanner. Either way, he’s dropped his cane in the painting’s lower left corner. Fuschia dots trace the picture’s border, while a periwinkle bow, a large letter E, the word “AMUSER,” and a window frame float in a dream ether, made from brushstrokes in pink, peach, and blue.
This all seems kind of indulgent until you notice how the picture persistently returns you to the structure of painting: the window frame echoes the canvas’s stretcher, and the dotted border reiterates the fact of its image-ness, while a wispy crease bisects the painting, so that we can almost imagine it folding over.
Koether’s work enjoys cultish devotion. In large part, this derives from her ability to reflect critically on painting. David Joselit’s essay “Painting Beside Itself,” deals prominently with her work, and has become an essential component of contemporary painting syllabi. His argument is that Koether’s highly referential method is a way of picturing the “networks” – social and technological – that produce art and its histories. This thesis was built around a 2009 painting and performance work (Hot Rod (after Poussin) at New York’s Reena Spaulings gallery. Insofar as art networks are concerned, Spaulings is kind of like a router – a powerful portal through which many young artists would love to pass.
Koether’s close association with this gallerist – in addition to a long collaborative relationship with Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth – goes a long way to explaining why I once found myself in the middle of an art-school bruhaha over a tacit prohibition, within my community of artists and students, against criticizing Koether’s work. Many understand her to possess an uncanny combination of critical acumen and coolness.
More importantly, perhaps, that argument was ignited by Koether’s savvy relationship to failure. In Zodiac Nudes, diagrammatic motifs – circles, intersecting lines – are imperfect and wavering. While faces are rigorously worked, feet and hands are left clumsily inelegant. These are unmistakable hallmarks of amateurish technique, in a conservative rubric of painterly method. One of Koether’s central strategies is to hide waves of nuance in superficial maladroitness. It doesn’t always work. In Zodiac Nudes, a grid of study-scale canvases sink sluggishly into a pantomime of Sunday-painter expressionism. No fresh thoughts are sparked by these works, much less critical revelations on the contemporary condition of painting.
Over and again, in Zodiac Nudes, a chessboard motif incants the ghost of Marcel Duchamp, while also serving as a metonym for Koether’s relationship to history. This link is more a reciprocal game than a downward trajectory of influence. In 2014, Koether wrote an idiosyncratic and moving essay on her dysfunctional relationship of influence with Sigmar Polke. In it, she explains that Polke was one of many German men who spent their careers trying to “come to terms with, or address, the defective cultural constitution of West Germany.” In the process of critiquing so many tyrannical father figures, she continues, these men also became ‘“machines for the production of injuries.”
So here, when towering figures loom out from Zodiac Nudes’ cinema-scale canvases, they loom in the way Koether wants. The two figures in Bond Freud National Gallery (2016) are trench-coated, with backs turned, and costumed like cousins of Mad Max. These are male power icons, stiffened into effigies, within fumes of soft color.
Grapes abound, triggering memories of Caravaggio’s Bachus (1595), and clouds of periwinkle appear, accompanying a recurrent bow. Koether’s punk bacchanalia comes full circle as oranges repeatedly cross-fade with breasts. In Bond Freud … a tall houseplant flanks the characters, along with another naked, longhaired figure, standing sentinel-still, and staring out. Plant and human rhyme, and a quasi-pagan belief system is suggested, along with a nightmare history, in which power fed on perverse theology.
The artistic tradition in which Koether partakes is itself a strange belief system that prioritizes a recursive movement through history, and dysfunctional relationships. In Bad Dad, she describes Polke’s habitual maltreatment of painting, but also his constant recreation of it “in very disjoined ways.” In this method, painting becomes a perpetual reformation of past imperfect.
Thinking of Koether’s past, a photograph comes to mind, in which she sits with her cohorts Cosima von Bonin, Michaela Eichwald, Charlene von Heyl, and Graw. It’s called The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and was taken in 1991, by Hans-Jörg Mayer. Each woman has a machine gun. Most are dressed in black, and Koether is front and center, her hair double-plaited beneath a backwards hat and paisley bandana. In her essay, “Classics of Modernism: Jutta Koether’s Treatment of Canonic Painters,” Graw likens Koether’s swirling brushstrokes to van Gogh’s stars, which represented a “hope that life (on other planets) could also be different, less marked by contempt and humiliating experiences.” Applied to this show, the quotation intones Koether’s hearts with an almost idealistic, searching feeling (like that which might compel one to join a militant cult).
Sure, the hearts mock emotion. But in the mocking, there’s a kind of honesty about the illusive nature of sincerity. These paintings get under the skin in mysterious ways.