In Jutta Koether’s ‘4 the Team’, a three-storey exhibition of her paintings at Lévy Gorvy, the German artist turns her name into a transitive verb: ‘to koether’, meaning to reduce a received image to a motif or an outline. The show’s eponymous painting, Koethered (4 the Team) (2019), enlarges a page of cursive script – the corners of an imagined sheet reinforced in the same shade of pink used across all of works on the third floor. The lines of text, unravelling into abstract ribbons, derive from Joseph Beuys’s 1986 speech, delivered just before his death, in which he paraphrased the sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck: ‘Die Fackel der offenen Gesellschaft trägt sich nicht von selbst.’ (The torch of open society does not carry itself.) Small berries – ellipses scattered across the horizontal lines – lead to a printed ‘4 the Team’, as if Koether’s recurring Pink Ladies (the apples that appear throughout these paintings then come together en masse in large numbered works by the same title) promise to keep alive the flame of art’s obsession with women’s pinkest, roundest parts, by eliminating everything else from view.
In a review for frieze of Koether’s 2018 retrospective at Museum Brandhorst in Munich, Daniela Stöppel took issue with the artist’s appropriative works, arguing that Koether reductively tries to ‘inscribe herself’ into a history of the male gaze via ‘rhetorical, knee-jerk reactions’ without offering a new vision for painting. ‘4 the Team’ seems to answer that complaint, opening onto two large-scale paintings completed in 2019 with the (ironically?) utopian titles Neue Frau (New Woman) and Neuer Mann (New Man). In the first, New York becomes a pastel backdrop for Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose titular novelty might lie equally in the subject’s politics or in her depiction here, where facial details are hastily rendered just enough to make her recognizable. Ocasio-Cortez is not subject to the lurid attention of realist detail. In this show, Koether’s allusive paintings feel more analytic than rhetorical, identifying the necessary elements of a reproduced source. In Dürered (4 Women) (2019), for example, a gestural remix of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Naked Women (1497), she keeps the lines of thigh and butt muscle, but replaces the 15th-century engraver’s creeping monster – cutting the element that, in the original, casts doubt on the women’s purity – with the scrawled text of the work’s title.
The second floor focuses on Koether’s works from the 1980s, in which her canvases take on thicker, more emotional layers of paint. Edie (1983), for instance, is a headless woman’s figure, with big hips and pert breasts, which divides the small, square canvas in two. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, I was unable to visit the gallery, and so resorted to studying images of the works online. Not included in this show, but of the same date and dimensions as Edie, is Koether’s painting of the writer Jane Bowles (1983). Suggesting the artist’s interest in the old woman, as much as in the new, the work’s two main figures comprise folded legs and a surreal face (perhaps the author’s own, which was distorted by addiction and a stroke), all rendered in pinks and oranges. It reminds me of a moment in Bowles’s perfect novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943), in which one of the titular women – working on eschewing her seriousness by shacking up with her young lover, Pacifica, a sex worker in Panama – wants to inform the police when she hears one of her lover’s clients has been violent, but is told that Pacifica would ‘rather have both legs chopped off’ than call the cops. In this painting of disembodied legs, and in the works included in ‘4 the Team’, Koether channels a similar predilection for disorder. Some distortion is preferable to a forced ideal.
Main image: Jutta Koether, Holding 3, 2019, oil on canvas, 130 × 80 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lévy Gorvy, New York, London, Hong Kong and Zürich