Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon’s performance as part of “The Thirst,” Moderna Museet, Stockholm, March 4, 2011. Photo: Albin Dahlström.

Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon’s performance as part of “The Thirst,” Moderna Museet, Stockholm, March 4, 2011. Photo: Albin Dahlström.

Jutta Koether

Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon’s performance as part of “The Thirst,” Moderna Museet, Stockholm, March 4, 2011. Photo: Albin Dahlström.

AT THE ENTRANCE to Jutta Koether’s exhibition at Moderna Museet, a sculptural arrangement greeted the visitor. Comprising a metallic red platform and a partially framed glass pane placed at an angle to a video projection, it suggested that one should pay special attention to the performance that took place during the opening, on that very spot, by the artist and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. The projected video was a documentation of this event, and judging from the size of the crowd and the scratching and beating of instruments onstage, it must have been intense. But in the brightly lit hallway, the projection looked muted and washed-out, and Koether and Gordon’s vocal, keyboard, and guitar actions were at lowered volume. In fact, in the projected documentation, performative presence and avant-rock noise were both subsumed under fleeting electronic layers of a video remix of Koether’s painterly images—as if the very tenets of such a performance were contingent on the atmospheric medium of paintings.

It was hard, then, not to see this video as an allegory of what came next. For the first section of the show presented you with something approaching an exposition on the relation between two paragons of performance: the painterly heroics of Abstract Expressionism and the slashes, rips, and lashings of countless rock events, with detours through Happenings and Aktionen along the way. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in clubs, but how else to respond to a painting exhibition that gave you a roomful of freestanding glass panels on the recto sides of which are suspended smeary blackish-gray paintings shimmering with mirrors, metal, and leather patches, the material accoutrements of metal, goth, and punk? And which, once you crossed the room and saw the verso sides, hit you with a series of paintings that glow with the intense pinkish reds and oranges of an infinite psychedelic dreamscape? Here was the color code of rock iconography, the recto and verso of rock culture itself: “outsider” blacks and “magic” reds, as articulated in the contrast between the biker imagery of Kenneth Anger’s 1963 Scorpio Rising and the sun-drenched occult-hippie fantasy of his ca. 1970–81 Lucifer Rising (which Koether herself referenced in two Rising paintings from 2006 and 2008). Here also were the two colors of rock performance—the pitch-darkness of the club space and the sudden flashing red lights onstage—brought to life through a spatial design that was itself a clever form of spectator management.

With the recto/verso hanging, Koether seemed set on determining the specific way in which these paintings would perform for you and with you. As if to underscore the point, the pink-orange paintings mainly depicted such female star performers as Peaches, Maria Callas, and Kylie Minogue at the peak moment of onstage action and communion with their audiences. The radiant and transparent brushwork in these red paintings—so different from the lowly smears in the mostly abstract black paintings—seems to indicate that such personae are not so much bathing in the projector lights as emanating that light themselves, through the sheer power and virtuosity of their stage presence. In this sense, Koether’s painterly technique itself sides wholeheartedly with the very force and mythos of popular performance.

Still, this was not simply an exposition on the continuities between high and low or between the most ambitious bids for immanence in the realms of modern painting and popular music, respectively. Koether’s association of painterly action and rock performance seems instead to highlight and to play off certain inescapable cultural and historical differences. These differences could be seen to revolve around a term—vulgar—that might on first impression seem to unite the two realms. In his beautifully perceptive 1994 essay “In Defense of Abstract Expressionism,” T. J. Clark suggests that the strength of AbEx painting comes from a highly specific form of ambition: notably, the aspiration to the individuality of the aristocrat, a will to greatness made all the more poignant by the essential emptiness of that desire, its pretension to a state of being that escapes bourgeois accountability and the related realist modes of representation. This painterly ambition could be named vulgarity but should not be confused with the merely popular, since vulgarity here signifies precisely the attempt to leap beyond signification and context—to go beyond, in fact, all systems of value.

As it happens, in The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism (1987), Robert Pattison employed almost the same set of terms when attempting to make sense of the ideological and aesthetic underpinnings that unite the expanding catalogue of musical forms called “rock.” Vulgarity, he argued, is their common denominator, and again the term does not simply refer to the popular or even to “bad taste.” Instead, it points to a refusal to recognize or to be in any way identified with the hierarchies and values that anchor us in social space and that give meaning to terms such as education, tradition, and history. On the practical level of musical production and expression, such vulgarity is instantiated through rock’s constant reinvention of the ephemeral, the fleeting and nonsubstantial, its celebration of grandiose pointlessness verging, at times, on transfixing dumbness. (Noise and sex are among the key resources here.) Rock is, in short, all about the ambition to attain the privileges of just being, without further qualification.

Yet simply to see a continuum of great, empty performative gestures would be to disregard the differences between the genres and cultural circuits that produce such ambitions in the first place. To struggle (in vain) for radical individuality in the already rarefied realm of modern painting, and to be heroically misrecognized by all but an elite group of cognoscenti, is obviously very different from placing your bid for radical individualism on the basis of rock’s collective processes of identification. In other words, you are not just a star subject adored by an audience, but more accurately an “audience subject,” a projection of audience desires. For the rock performer is not just a key figure in what has been called a new “mass individualism” but, even more pertinently, the driving force behind an ascendant singularization of social collectives, the emergence of social forms born not out of necessity but out of an unruly spirit of invention and creativity. As an audience subject, she or he is above all a nodal point in the media machineries that run on collective desires to escape hierarchichal value systems—as expressed in the constant proliferation of musical subgenres and microcultures. Again, Koether’s painterly technique takes us there: In painting after painting, the radiant red brushstrokes that perform, so to speak, the power of the musical stars also bring out the figure of the audience as an effect of that same radiance, as if their coming into being were part of a single painterly and performative force.

Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon during their performance as part of “The Thirst,” Moderna Museet, Stockholm, March 4, 2011. Photo: Albin Dahlström.

If traces of the dream of aristocratic freedom still live on in such collective desires, they persist in a mode so shadowy, so transformed, that it has lost nearly all of its original raison d’être: The aristocrat cannot, by definition, be multiple. Yet Koether’s paintings—hovering between the greatest modern ambitions of painting qua painting and the atmospheric, quasi-magic embrace of audiences that makes painting align itself with ephemeral video projections, noise, and club experiences—seem to trace precisely this process of transformation as it affects painting itself. Her works do not just point melancholically to a social world forever left behind; they also, more enthusiastically, gesture toward a reality in which painting’s peculiar means and ends will not necessarily be lost or made irrelevant but will be strategically aligned with other social forces. Koether’s intensive colors are, for instance, performatives in their own right. While wholly dependent on the material base of paint (neither the depth of the black paintings nor the radiance of the red ones reproduces well), the effect of her colors cannot ultimately be limited to this medium and its set of references. Rather, the hues seem to work alongside technologies, media, and situations—projector lights, club spaces, Anger movies—that may deliver analogous intensities and so both reinforce and expand those of painting itself.

In this unresolved situation, an expanded concept of spectator management is the order of the day. Against the great empty freedoms of Abstract Expressionist painting, with its allover expanses and open gestures—recalled most poignantly in Koether’s black paintings—the second half of the exhibition highlighted how the forces of painting also act as situational constraints. Named “Berliner Schlüssel,” 2010, after a key that quite literally forces you into locking your door from the inside once you have used the key to enter your apartment, the series of works shown here presents painting as an independent agent or performer that shapes actions and produces specific social situations. Once more we were led through a precisely designed environment—narrow, corridor-like spaces where the paintings seemed to double as wall partitions. But in this section, the architectural partitioning, or the precise parceling-out of visual-performative space, was also pursued within the frame of painting itself. Painted partitions and frames of all kinds, sketchily rendered decorative wall elements and construction details such as metal corners normally used to reinforce the backside of picture frames, invade the image space, imposing themselves on a flow of imagery where rock-related performance themes mingle freely with motifs ranging from Baroque genre scenes to the expressionist bodies of Francis Bacon.

It is of course telling that painting’s performative constraints—its historical ability to form specific audiences, to command specific modes of behavior—are foregrounded precisely at that moment when their register and scope would seem to have expanded: i.e., when the wannabe-elite individualism of modern abstraction segues into the wider realm of collective desires. For such a transition necessarily comes with the loss of a certain, much celebrated, indefinite mode of openness, initiated through the performative gestures of Abstract Expressionist painting. If there is any veracity to Koether’s association of paintings and audience subjects, if painting can actually be imagined to perform alongside other forces in the creation of new social surfaces, one has to recognize the limits of such openness. One cannot ignore the specificity of such processes and the different aesthetic, economic, architectural, and media-driven elements that they inevitably involve. It is at this level of generative specifics that Koether makes painting perform both through and beyond abstraction’s greatest ambitions—as if by recalling some of the collective things that painting once was, one could imagine the collective things it might become.

Ina Blom is a professor in the department of philosophy, classics, history of art and ideas at the University of Oslo.