On ViewLévy Gorvy
Jutta Koether inscribes herself in a grand German Expressionist tradition, one expansive enough to include figures like Chaïm Soutine, Eva Hesse, and Lucian Freud, whose work at certain stages shared an affinity for gestural brushstrokes, rough figuration, and the grotesque. To be sure, she reconfigures that tradition in her own image and the artistic DNA of her work is specific.
Her first show at Lévy Gorvy, some 22 paintings; 11 from 2019; 10 from the ’80s and one from 1990, is hung in idiosyncratic fashion: new work on the ground floor and third floor, older work on the second. The artist has deliberately choreographed—an appropriate term since her work also involves performance and dance—the arrangement to partly resist our seeing an easy progression in her work. Viewed in hindsight, there is continuity between the older and newer pieces, but the work of the ’80s marks a phase Koether left behind when she moved from Cologne to New York in the ’90s.
These small paintings, made between 1983 and 1987, are superb. Their role in Koether’s oeuvre is reminiscent of Eva Hesse’s expressionistic “spectre” paintings of 1960 in that they also show the artist taking control of an Expressionistic style reminiscent of Soutine’s still lives or even Philip Guston’s figural paintings—but a style she will jettison. Untitled (1983) might be an emblem of this period in Koether’s career: the 11’’ x 9’’ oil on canvas appears to represent three sperm making their way toward an egg. Both the sperm and the egg are black with red embellishments, so their biological affinities are clear. A new life is about to be created. Max Ernst (1983) pays homage to the eponymous artist, and perhaps to Surrealism itself. Ernst is reconstituted as a pyramid with two eyes, one within and the other, perched on the pyramid’s apex. Enigmatic, unless we take the pyramid as a symbol of creation and the eyes as the dialectical relationship between the artist’s conscious and subconscious lives.
Koether’s paintings from 2019 are also balanced between her inner life and her life in the world. Entering the gallery, the viewer faces a large horizontal canvas, Encore. The painting synthesizes much of Koether’s recent artistic life: the central figure—an artist with brushes in her left hand, her back to us—faces what seem to be an opera house audience. Has this plastic artist been asked to sing an encore? Are the blue ribbons she ties into a huge bow a double lasso intended to capture someone or tie that someone to her? The idea of an artist-singer is not farfetched in Koether’s case, since she is also a music critic and performance artist who dances to music (a heart-shaped prop from a 2020 performance at Artists Space hangs on the second floor with the paintings of the ’80s), and lectures in a performative way on her work.
That self-image—if not self-portrait—complements two other large rectangular canvases Neue Frau and Neuer Mann (both 2019). The “new woman” and the “new man” do not exactly face each other from opposite walls; they are set, deliberately again, at a slight angle to each other, as if to say, this is not an opposition, but two possibilities. The “new woman,” apparently based on the congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, stares solemnly from the lower right section of the canvas. Looping around her face then upward into the higher reaches of the canvas is another blue ribbon like the one in Encore. This new woman must confront life outside the canvas and, it would seem, separate herself from another—perhaps inner—life. Being the new woman clearly means sacrifice of one kind or another. The new man has no face, no name, and no correlative in the real world. He, or rather they, since the male image is double, is either falling or signaling a possible direction. Perhaps the double image suggests the double role of the new man: falling out of the way but at the same time helping by showing the way.
Two more-or-less identical canvases, Holding 3 and Holding 4 (both 2019), painted in Koether’s signature attenuated red, are the same red as the gown worn by the artist in Encore and in the other 2019 pieces on the third floor. It renders curtains, apples, fabric, and skin, covers that open to reveal performance and what lies beneath the surface. Two paintings here help us to understand Koether’s relationship to art history—a subject she has delved into before, especially in regard to Poussin. Dürered (4 Women) is juxtaposed to Koethered (4 the Team). In the former, Koether takes Dürer’s 1497 engraving The Four Witches, turning them from beauties into horrors. Koethered is a self-conscious exercise in self-imaging: the self is reduced to an eye, a heart, and the title of the show, “4 the Team,” is reduced to a motto from a Mercedes Benz racing group. Dürered (4 Women) offers an irreverent view of a master from the past, Koethered, an irreverent view of oneself.
Jutta Koether conflates an artist in 2020 and artist of the past, dialogues with the past and life in 2020, and dialectics of art and society, in order to create a grand synthesis whereby her knowledge, experience, and artistic spirit fuse into these magnificent canvases.