PRINT March 2006


FEW PEOPLE IN COLOGNE in the ’80s and early ’90s knew quite what to make of Jutta Koether’s paintings. Koether was admired for her astute theoretical essays on art and music, which appeared in the legendary German culture magazine Spex and elsewhere, but these writings seemed nearly irreconcilable with her deliberately clumsy, apparently crude pictures. How was one to understand a work like, say, Portrait Robert Johnson? Painted entirely in Koether’s then-signature blackish red pigments, this 1990 diptych—for the record, one of my favorite paintings—features on one panel a flatly rendered face, its large eyes rimmed by exaggerated lashes, emerging from a field of amorphous forms and undulating lines. For some viewers the color and ostentatious use of smeared paint invoked a kind of “female essence,” leading them to assert that Koether made “women’s art”—a reading that was as reductive as it was sexist, of course, but perhaps the ultimate opprobrium in the male-dominated milieu of Cologne’s art world. (Other canvases—such as Nasse Grenze [Wet Border], 1991, in which a bikini-clad female figure almost disappears in a garish thicket of brushstrokes—only seemed to bolster their case.) The diptych’s second panel depicts a tall, narrow grid of boxes, the middle columns inscribed with terms suggesting intractable dualisms of the ineffable and empirical—AURA versus MACHINE, OBSESSED versus ELECTRIC—and the outer columns all paradoxically declare 100%.

Koether’s work in the early ’90s often seemed to provocatively flaunt the dilettantism of neo-expressionism, the rejection of which had by then reached a climax (to say nothing of the more generalized hostility to painting as such that prevailed in some segments of the art world). With Portrait Robert Johnson she took terms like aura or obsession—terms that were closely associated with gestural painting and that had been discredited by postmodern theory—and presented them as if they could not be simply tossed aside. What did it mean at the start of the ’90s to show a picture claiming to be 100 percent “obsessed,” “spiritual,” and “painted”? It meant deliberately making oneself vulnerable, consciously opting to push oneself radically toward the margins.

From today’s historical distance, it would be easy to associate Koether’s work with the rise of “bad painting,” which had vocal proponents in Cologne, although this, too, would be a reductive reading, glossing over the complexities of her relationship to the genre. One could say that Koether was one of the few artists who actually took the notion seriously, pushing it to extremes—literally performing badness. Indeed, her work was not thought to belong in the “bad painting” category—in part, no doubt, because she eschewed the overt irony of her male colleagues like Albert Oehlen or Werner Büttner, who used bitter, often bawdy humor to appropriate and critique political commonplaces and cultural clichés. In contrast, Koether’s paintings were (and are) subtly biographical, rife with cryptic allusions and theoretical references, and existentially loaded: They often incorporate slogans like SHE'S TOO OLD that convey a feeling of urgency suggestive of their personal importance to the artist. Her most ostensibly expressive canvases can also be read as linguistic propositions, or speech acts, since they invariably include aphoristic phrases like “Kissing the canvas” or “Desire is war”; quotations, like Guy Debord’s “Seeking the death that is life”; or seeming non sequiturs, like “20 minutes” and “Allein! Allein!” (Alone! Alone!), which derive a strange pathos from their exclamatory yet ambiguous tone. Sometimes, in fact, her paintings seem almost to behave like people, calling out to us. Koether’s work also puts relentless pressure on the formal implications of “bad” (untrained, punk, DIY) painting. Her figuration is often reminiscent of schoolchildren’s notebook sketches. And in a subtler register she has reanimated some of the tropes that were declared obsolete by progressivist theories of art history, reinstating the figure-ground opposition that modernist painting supposedly rendered null and void, and introducing exaggerated perspectival depth via whirlpool-like “holes” or abysses in the center of her canvases.

In addition to the contrarian qualities that inhere in the work, Koether’s refusal to limit herself to a single discipline was a stigma in the early days of her career. Since her time as a student at the University of Cologne, where she studied art education and philosophy, she has maintained multiple practices not only as a writer and painter but as a performer as well. The notion that artistic competence might span mediums has been familiar since Conceptualism’s early days, but had not made inroads in Cologne (or perhaps had been successfully repressed). Thus Koether, inscrutable in her diverse approaches (all of them taken up “100 percent”), was often said to suffer from “lack of focus.”

Yet in her divergent and self-contradictory gestures there was (and is) a common denominator. In fact, it is in these divergent modes that we come upon a framework for Koether’s practice: Her art always taps into the dominant system of credibility. In her work, the “space of the possible,” to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the discursive boundaries that delimit a given cultural field, is always infiltrated by what it most disapproves. Think, for example, of Koether’s decision to attend the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York in 1992: The program was a hotbed of anti-painting theory, in a city whose broader art community was itself arrayed against Expressionist painting. Koether positioned herself in the center, geographically and culturally, but also placed herself at the periphery. That same year, she produced a project called “The Inside Job” that took up then-hegemonic context-based practices even as it confronted them with what was considered “impossible.” In an apartment in Manhattan’s West Village, she staged a studio, covering the floor with a single large, abstract painting in progress. Visitors had to schedule appointments to see the show; upon arriving, they found Koether and her oversize canvas, which the small space forced them to engage—they had to get close to it, even walk on it, “signing” it with their footsteps. They were also urged to write their comments in a book, as if Koether wanted to force an active reception of the work. Reactions were mixed: Some viewers refused to fix their opinions in written form, while others were curious to read the responses of those who had come before them. Many of the New York art world’s relevant players came by—and in this respect “The Inside Job” can be seen as the artist’s attempt to take the process of institutional recognition into her own hands. Do it yourself! To a degree, this strategy did pay off: Gallerist Pat Hearn offered Koether her first New York solo show soon after seeing “The Inside Job.” But Koether had experienced rejection as well, and her decision to reactivate the model of the artist in the studio, at the apex of the poststudio era, was met with skepticism. Many of the visitors clearly stated that they liked the comment book and the protocols Koether imposed on viewers much more than the painting.

But if Koether’s work seems almost to want to fall out of the “space of the possible,” there are signs that this space may be expanding of its own accord to encompass her. One may point, for example, to her first appearance in a blue-chip biennial (the 2006 Whitney, opening this month); or to her largest survey exhibition to date, upcoming this May at the Kölnischer Kunstverein; or even to this very article, published in an art magazine that certainly plays a role in increasing an artist’s market value. Koether’s newfound institutional acceptance follows on the heels of a spate of well-received exhibitions: At the Swiss Institute in New York in 2002, she presented “Black Bonds,” a collaboration with the late Steven Parrino that combined noise performances with an installation of artfully destroyed “failed” paintings; at New York’s Reena Spaulings Fine Art in 2004 she showed her “black paintings,” a group of 170 swiftly executed works that amount to a typology of painterly gestures (Fresh Aufhebung, 2003–2004); and last spring, again in New York, she had a mini-retrospective at Thomas Erben Gallery. Farther afield, her large exhibition last summer at Cologne’s Simultanhalle showcased her drawings and relieflike liquid-glass paintings.

In her most recent shows, Koether has developed what might be called a presentational repertoire, painting the gallery walls a silvery gray that is more industrial-clinical than Warholian, and installing her works among plastic exercise balls, photocopied texts, black-painted partitions that suggest theatrical flats, and glittery Mylar curtains. The overall effect is at once provisional and systematic, low-tech and glamorous, a combination of salon and trashy bar that pushes the contemporary exhibition paradigm toward something more overtly experimental and theatrical. The individual works tend to be as confounding as the mise-en-scène. The liquid-glass paintings, for instance, suspend trinkets and scraps from the lowest strata of consumer capitalism—toy money, thumbtacks—in glass that is itself pocked with gaping holes, air bubbles, and other irregularities. These paintings, undercutting the notion of the artist as professional with their messy surfaces and determined lack of slickness, also suggest a more profound challenge in their transposition of those quintessential Expressionist gestures—pouring and dripping—to glass, the material of commodity display and containment. It is as if the Expressionist gesture itself has been arrested, frozen, and conceptualized.

As I see it, the upswing in Koether’s critical and curatorial recognition speaks to the fact that dominant art-world models are increasingly in crisis. Complacent retreads of a restrictive canon of institutional critique; hopelessly romantic revivals of bohemian collectivist fantasies; the “corporate artist,” keenly concerned with establishing a linear career trajectory; the regressive painter: All, in one way or another, have fallen short. Koether is in touch with each of these models, but does not adopt their orthodoxies, and in fact she productively puts their contradictions and inherent problems into play. What was once a liability—the multivalent, open-ended nature of her oeuvre, its foreclosure of easy legibility—may now be the opposite, as such practices come into focus in the viewfinder of institutional consensus.

KOETHER IS A CULT FIGURE and an outsider all wrapped up in one. The best way to understand this is to take in one of her trademark performances, with which she frequently opens or closes her exhibitions. In addition to her collaborations with Parrino, who was her partner in the two-member band Electrophilia, she has performed with Kim Gordon, Rita Ackermann, and others, but her solo shows remain a phenomenon unto themselves. Anyone who has witnessed one will know what I mean when I say that the cringe factor is generally high. The artist usually declaims a fragmented text composed of quotations from various sources, her intonations suggesting an unmistakable pathos, while she plays a synthesizer and occasionally hits the floor with a hammer or blinds the audience with a flashlight. The actions vary depending on the situation, but there is always some element of aggression or hostility. As a spectator, you can’t help being a bit embarrassed by the whole thing, because on some level Koether appears to be disclosing herself, inviting the audience to possess her authentic personhood. You wish you were somewhere else, and yet you remain transfixed.

To what end does Koether create such a sense of embarrassment? In this regard it is important to recognize that, just as she pushes her paintings uncannily toward subjecthood—presenting them theatrically, so they obtain the air of living persons—so she herself has always been what might be called a self-performer. If it is true that, under the conditions of spectacular capitalism, artworks have become increasingly like subjects and artists increasingly like objects, then Koether anticipated both of these developments. From the beginning, she has staged herself, becoming known in the ’80s for her odd head wear (berets, wrapped scarves) and, since then, for having cultivated a signature look that might be called austere-aesthete (black clothes, flat shoes, hair up, with playful touches like rings and excessively long gold chains). But her staging of the persona “Jutta Koether” is very different from currently prevailing modes of artistic self-presentation, insofar as it embraces the eccentricity that artists, luckily, are still permitted. While a number of primarily younger American female artists pursue the fashion-model ideal, Koether’s appearances as an artist, as a performer, or as a musician in a band are predicated on her recognition of the fact that, in the era of celebrity culture—whose rules have also come to govern the art world—there is no way past “staging” or “appearance.” Artists, like Hollywood stars, must bring not just their work but their personae to market. The notion that artists should consciously create images of themselves is of course not new, but the importance of such staging in the creation of value has increased dramatically. If an artist’s persona is thought convincing, the work will be, too.

In fact, the implications of Koether’s project reach well beyond the boundaries of the art world. As the philosopher Paolo Virno observes in his book Grammar of the Multitude (2004), it is now the whole person that is subjected to the demands of capital—not just the capacity for labor but cognitive and communicative faculties as well. This is the unique quality of the spectacular phase in which we find ourselves. It wants all of us, even beyond skin and teeth. Every human endeavor, says Virno, has become performative—labor, political action, aesthetic or intellectual creation. Koether seems always to have understood this. It’s not easy to strictly separate her life from her work, for the two constantly articulate and reinforce each other. In any performance, there is necessarily an element of authenticity; but with Koether, it is particularly difficult to mark the point where the performance begins and the authentic ends. Onstage, she seems truly vulnerable—but then again, perhaps this is merely another layer of artifice. She herself coined the phrase “presenting nonauthenticity authentically.”

This kind of paradoxical performance also takes place in her painting, especially as she brings expressivity together with a rigorous experimental conceptualism. Her gestural pictures—thick with swirls and streaks, and often composed around those central voids or visual maelstroms—stand alongside works that might be descended from those of Hanne Darboven or On Kawara. For instance, each day for 512 days, beginning in December 2000, Koether made a multicolored drawing on a piece of graph paper, filling square after square with colored pencil, in an apparent reiteration of strict Minimalist seriality. On close examination, however, one can see that expressiveness has by no means been liquidated. Here the lines are oriented in one direction, there in another, here they seem tentative, there vigorous, bolder or fainter, depending on the day. Every mark is at once immediate and mediated, because it has been produced within a carefully determined framework. In fact, the drawings were later photographed and the photos made into a video (10 Dezember 2000–6 Mai 2002). Call it the “conceptualization of the gesture”—a notion that might serve as a prism through which to understand, say, the spontaneous yet flash-frozen liquid-glass paintings and, perhaps, Koether’s overarching organizing strategy. In a classically Conceptualist sense, everything she does could be seen as an utterance that programmatically reinforces her practice as a whole.

In a text accompanying her exhibition “Desire Is War” (Galerie Meerettich, Berlin, 2004), Koether wrote that a painting, like a person, makes an “appearance,” “bare and alone.” The work puts itself at our mercy, subject to the public gaze and forced to endure it. In this light, the title of her painting Self-Alienated Spirit, 2000, speaks volumes, asserting that one may be alienated from oneself but nonetheless have “spirit”—that one may be marked by external factors but nonetheless produce something that is unmistakably one’s own. Paintings for Koether are not the place where the subject expresses itself, just as, conversely, expression does not allow the spectator to reach any reliable conclusions about the subject. Paintings, rather, are the place where the subject presents herself as something that must be thought in absolutely insubstantial terms, and radically alienated. The painting does not define itself by way of its supposed intrinsic qualities: Rather, it is the external that is key. The motif of crossing-out, visible in so many of Koether’s paintings, should be understood in this context. It is a variation of Jörg Immendorff’s famous command “Stop painting” (Hört auf zu Malen), continuing the tradition of a praxis that does not believe in painting, but continues to paint on the basis of this very disbelief. For Koether, the mercilessly clear and nonidealistic gaze that Walter Benjamin attributed to Baudelaire, free of illusion and thus capable of apprehending “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent,” is the foundation of a practice that is defined by what it absorbs. It refuses the idealistic and the formalist, but nevertheless evinces aesthetic awareness and sophistication, and perhaps points us away from contemporary dead ends.

At some point most artists, especially painters, get comfortable in their niche and thereafter simply defend their system. They lock themselves away in their studios and provide what the market wants. In such a career, the best that can be hoped for is increasing refinement of a given set of strategies—which may well be a worthy goal, but one that will, I think, inevitably tend toward irrelevance. For Koether, on the other hand, the status quo has never been an option. Over the years her zones of activity have been characterized by expansion. She remains open, keeping up with everything, exploring, judging, evaluating, and processing. There is always the danger that she will spread herself too thin, but this is less dangerous than the “stay focused” model. This is not to say that Koether has not developed a recognizable visual language, if not her own signature style (we might think of those Mylar curtains and medicine balls). It is rather to say that she gives herself over to the external instead of phobically retrenching, thereby acknowledging that external constraints are not only limitations but also possibilities. One could go so far as to say that art, understood this way, is the external—albeit filtered, processed in a specific and singular way. However varied and open Koether’s approaches and practices might be, she always makes herself the stakes of the game.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic.