A capricious elusiveness is an essential characteristic of the art of Jutta Koether. Black as night at one moment, shining with joy the next, she offers an oeuvre that appears to consist purely of side-paths. A profesional artistry that attests to great insight and virtuosity is alternated with the muddiest painting in the world: anit-art, anit-beauty, anti-everything. Who is she, and what does she want?
When Jutta Koether was invited to show recent works at Kölnischer Kunstverein, she was taken with the quality of the post-war architecture of Die Brücke, formerly home to the British Council. And in particular with its elongated main hall, with windows down both sides, running along a busy street in the city centre, whose total transparency breaks down the often hermetic divide between white cube and outside world – a building without walls. But Jutta Koether wanted to show paintings. She was familiar with the ‘glass easels’ designed in the late 1960s by the architect Lina Bò Bardi for the main hall of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) with its towering glass frontage that seems to float above the city traffic below. Lina Bò Bardi hung paintings on separate upright glass panels set in concrete plinths. The backs of the canvases remained visible, and this is also where the labels with technical details were fixed. The painting – much of it classical, in heavy frames – stood apart and was freed from any fixed link with the architecture. With no more cabinets and sequences of rooms, the works also detached themselves from all art-historical ties and became self-possessed objects no longer relying on lines of sight or positioning to establish contact with others.
Jutta Koether, too, hung her paintings in her exhibition Fantasia Colonia in the Kölnische Kunstverein on glass: a long wall assembled out of several panes metres high, attached to the ceiling with almost invisible threads and anchored in shining metal strips. The glass band recalled a screen – except that instead of keeping gazes at bay, it drew them in. And because Jutta Koether hung works back to back on both sides, as well as linking compositions and motifs, wherever one of the pictures protruded beyond another one could see the brownish grey of the unprimed canvas, the casual signature, a scrawled title and the solid cross of the stretcher.
Her 170 small vertical-format pictures were also not expected to stand alone. Dating from 2003/2004, they are made with a black acrylic wash, like ink that has run, resembling calligraphic studies or abstract-gestural paintings. Jutta Koether grouped them under the title Fresh Aufhebung; in Cologne – as at the solo show’s second host venue, the Kunsthalle in Bern – they were spread across the walls in such a way as to suggest a salon hanging after a tornado; almost blow away, they gathered in rows and groups of three or four, grey-black clumps like snow at the roadside in which passers-by have left a few crosses or markings.
The end wall was used to project the DVD of the same title, a disconcerting duplication since the pictures appeared again, like an endless slide show, blown up metres high and so bright that the small, dark, dense pictures turned into a play of light and shadow that illuminated the space. Just as the film emerged from the existence of the pictures, so Jutta Koether developed a performance in front of the projection. For the opening in Basel, she invited her friend the musician Kim Gordon to perform with her in the space – confronting the dialectic between physical object and the disappearance of that object in the course of a filmic construction with a performance during which they dragged their instruments slowly around the entire space.
But even when Jutta Koether decides to present pictures in an entirely conventional way, the spaces feel experimentally charged: With Fantasia Colonia it was almost as if there had been some lingering reluctance to set free these glowing red presumptions that presented themselves in an almost museum-like hanging, like a chapter from art history. The pictures had been in storage for more than fifteen years. People in Cologne especially still remember their first showing at Sophia Ungers Gallery under the title 100% Malerei: Niemand ist eine Frau. In the Kölnischer Kunstverein, they were lined up on a long wall in the basement. Painted entirely in black and red (and occasional some yellow) they paraphrase Art History: Ursprung der Welt (1990), a loosely sketched horizontal format picture of a woman with her thighs spread, bears the same title as its model, of which it renders an anecdotal impression rather than retracing the brilliance of the original’s fleshiness. Spargelbund (1989) sits neatly in the middle of a small canvas, although the unfamiliar and flatly applied red of the background gnaws at the softly sketched bundle, whereas the subdued tones of Manet’s original allowed it to be more present. Although the modifications distort the originals, until Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1988) becomes a fluid state where starlight swirls like floodlight frogspawn, nonetheless, the intent is serious – witness the way Jutta Koether writes the names Cezanne, Courbet, Manet and Van Gogh in crudely outlined black capitals one beneath the other like the lines of poem, followed by a brief ‘ME’.
‘I don’t belong to any generation’, says Jutta Koether (born in Cologne in 1958), who once told an interviewer that after a show of these pictures in Cologne, she decided to move to New York because she could no longer stay. In Cologne, where she actually studied art education, she learned much about painting from friends like Walter Dahn, but she felt she had missed the first generation, the wave of painters, and did not fit into the following generation of conceptual and theoretical artists. “They wouldn’t give me the time of day,” she said in an interview: too young for the established artists, not taken seriously by the alternative artists, it was a question of doing something markedly different. For Jutta Koether, the red and black pictures are not a series or a period; instead, she describes such effects in highly active terms – for example, as a “monochrome measure”. She put some of the pictures into storage herself after they were exhibited in 1991 in Graz (at Bleich-Rossi) and a year later at Sophia Ungers Gallery in Cologne. They had to be shown at the beginning of the retrospective: ‘The red pictures were the moment of realization, they were my way of saying to myself: I want to do something with painting, it was a way of setting myself apart from the Neue Wilde, maybe also from Bad Painting in the expected repressive way it was mostly practiced at the time. And these pictures hurt everyone’s eyes, not just because of their being red, this glow: they formulated an attitude, they were literally the female body, flesh itself. There were so many studio visits, and the gallerists always ran away from these pictures. They were the reason why so many people at the time told me I’d better not paint after all.’
With hindsight, 100% Malerei – Niemand ist eine Frau was also a painterly gesture, which, as Isabell Graw writes, ‘vehemently inscribed itself into the canon to claim a place for itself at the end of the list of famous painters. But this is not done without irony. For instead of using the name “Koether”, what we read is the both presumptuous and slightly timid-seeming word “me”. It really does sound as if someone is stamping their foot and shouting “me”…’. At both venues, in Bern and Cologne, the works have the presence of a block: they come across so historical and assured, as if they had been the subject of museum shows and catalogue essays for decades. As such they act as a strip of litmus paper to test the state of contemporary art under laboratory conditions: unsurprisingly, one sees that they stay just as red as they were, but it feels as if their presence makes all their contemporaries take on a pale blue hue.
Painting as Flyer
But what is so special about these pictures, that do not even have a uniform style, that fall across the door of the Kunsthalle like a sheet on a stage set or which are lit by stroboscopic light as if they were hanging in a disco? Fantasia Colonia in Cologne and Änderungen Aller Art (All Kinds of Change) in Bern share a catalogue in which Jutta Koether sums up how she sees this medium, stating that she is also interested in ‘making visible possible connections between painting and other things, as well as opening up or even provoking the impossible... so painting became a flyer, theatre props, a site of theoretical debris, music/painted scores, a door, an amplifier of feelings, a place for wordplay... or simply a support for ideas and feelings, an expression of the body.’
To a certain point, this attitude is related to that of Martin Kippenberger who in an interview for Flash Art in 1991 (conducted, significantly enough, by Jutta Koether) made a similar statement: ‘I’m not a “real” painter, nor a “real” sculptor, I only look at all that from the outside and sometimes try my hand at it, trying to add my own particular spice. (...) Assuming roles is something that simply won’t work for me, since I don’t have a style. None at all. My style is where you see the individual and where a personality is communicated through actions, decisions, single objects and facts, where the whole draws together to form a history.’
But the main difference between the two positions lies not so much in the painterly or conceptual gesture as in the artist’s personality itself. Jutta Koether first made a name for herself in art with her columns, texts and activities. As a regular contributor to Spex magazine, she established a way of writing and thinking that made art one possibility among many, her texts focussing less on mediation than on the formulation of attitude, reflection, reactions. At the same time, she appeared as a musician and developed performances (sometimes using the name Reela Spauligs), wrote song lyrics or talked to fellow artists about what they were doing.
Whenever she showed an exhibition, it never felt as if one was looking at pictures: instead, it felt as if a woman was showing herself as an artist, and sometimes that she was living this as one of her identities. This choice was contrasted with the complexity, glamour and brilliance of her other activities – and her painting was unwieldy, deliberately clumsy and harsh, even when it was luminous and many-facetted. It is hard to pin down the work of an artist who is so present in other fields. In the catalogue, Koether’s former Spex colleague Michael Kerkmann quotes a text from as early as 1986 in which she describes painting less as a medium that exists in competition with other media and more as a field in which everything is still possible. ‘The dogged opponents of painting are glad. They have always know that “after all this painting it is now time for something else.” The true players, on the other hand, claim that it is not about such small-minded scoring of points, but about knowing the purpose of the game and always being in on it... in this elevated sense, of course.’
This sounds almost like a preamble to the strategies that Jutta Koether has since developed for this ‘game’ (not that her approach involves especially ill-considered ventures). The two exhibitions in Bern and Cologne, in 2006 and 2007, explicitly allow us to view all of Jutta Koether’s other activities from the point of view of her painting. This is helpful, as this brilliant author, who also just happens to be involved in writing collaborative novels and whose idiom sounds as fine as poetry, always presents painting as one possible mode of action embedded in a larger project: an installation, an effect, a situation.... This appraising stance always makes clear that the choice of painting was not a necessary one. Jutta Koether the painter cultivates an obviously distanced relationship to art, and the special quality of her pictures results directly from this understanding: not because it isolates them from the context of art (actually performing the function of a curtain, a flag, a partition), but because one often has the impression that the moment they come into being they have already fallen out of their time. They are just as much a paraphrase of the past as they are an exactingly formulated vision of the future, precisely because they do not wait to be placed in a particular context.
It is clear that this cannot give rise to a style: which makes it difficult to relate Jutta Koether the teacher to a subsequent generation, even if many younger artists now explicitly refer to her work. But there are also students who do not paint, who ‘are interested in this curiously other..., who wanted to know: why painting?... but not in order to do it themselves. As a teacher, where I see interesting students is not where a style or something is being copied, but where methods of critical questioning of art, of visual output, are explained or discussed. It’s about curiosity, interest in complexity, the willingness to engage with processes, to take risks, to discard one’s own work. Here in New York, education is often defined as a product, after a successful exhibition the professors then claim the students as their own. In Germany, things are still different – and it goes so far that Michael Krebber will only refer to relationships with his students as “friendships”’.
Jutta Koether readily admits that this view of teaching, which is also a direct result of her artistic position, also has anti-authoritarian roots: ‘As a young person, I went through anti-authoritarian education theory, but not programmatically, more on a self-help basis.’
The fact that the exhibition in Cologne was rather immodest, staged as an unmistakeable gesture and as a performance, is due, says Jutta Koether, primarily to the curator Kathrin Rhomberg, although she was also helped by Rosemarie Trockel, who was preparing a retrospective at Museum Ludwig at almost the same time. She showed Jutta Koether that such an exhibition could also be seen as an opportunity to tidy up one’s own life, to let some things stand and to discard others for good. For the Kunsthalle in Bern, a venue contaminated with painting in art historical terms, she says she devised an adaptation of the Cologne show, a high-class version of the Cologne experiment. The freestanding glass screen ran through two rooms, newly constructed out of heavier material and anchored by substantial rails. The installation untitled (enigma) (2006) was enhanced by a silvery metal ball, whereas in Cologne a shimmering plastic ball had been deposited in the basement; the glaring stroboscopic light was not possible for the second version, so Jutta Koether carefully painted the walls of an elegant atrium in silver.
This almost kitschy borderline aesthetic, which related to the formerly dark-brown paint of the halls, made the presentation light and mobile. It almost seemed as if one could overturn the architecture, starting with the little ball, letting it roll through the galleries as a convex mirror, along the Large Glass in the main hall, down the stairs, landing in front of the opaque screening of Fresh Aufhebung or into the final gallery, where the green-toned elongated horizontal-format painting The Inside Job (NYC, W 9th Street), now fifteen years old, is allowed to stretch out like Monet’s water lily panoramas. Isabell Graw has rightly pointed out that the wheel of painting cannot be reinvented; Jutta Koether is clearly capable of setting up the old game in a new way so that it rolls in different directions.
Group exhibitions with work of Jutta Koether:
Das deutungsreiche Spiel:
Der Symbolismus und die Kunst der Gegenwart
Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal
24 June - 30 September
Zwischen zwei Toden
15 May - 15 June