Not long ago, the return of easel painting was considered a sign of low times in the world of contemporary art. For many critics, the brash, expressionist canvases of the 1980s paralleled the backsliding of Reagan and Thatcher, with modernism itself (read: progress) in full retreat. It was in this milieu that Jutta Koether staked her position as brash expressionist and critical-minded modernist, first in Cologne in the late 1980s, then New York, where she has resided since the early 1990s. Best known for synthesizing painting, punk rock and critical theory (her canvases frequently serve as backdrops for Brechtian lectures and noise-rock jams), she has lately trained her focus on modernism’s origins, looking first to Cézanne and, more recently, to Nicolas Poussin.
Koether’s solo exhibition at Bortolami (her first at the gallery) complemented her installation of paintings at this year’s Whitney Biennial—a series of works that update Poussin’s late suite of landscapes, “The Four Seasons” (1660-64), in a palette of Manic Panic reds and greens. At Bortolami, viewers could find a similar set of Koether’s “Seasons” hung in the gallery’s austere main room (at the Whitney, they were suspended from the ceiling on vertical panes of glass) accompanied by a small painting of a seated cat (a detail of her Winter piece). In the back room were three canvases scrawled in scarlet and pink, evoking characters drawn from the work of Titian, Francis Bacon and Francesca Woodman, some heroic, others abject. Throughout the gallery, a thick layer of red-gray gravel blanketed the floor—a gesture designed to incorporate the crunch of viewers’ soles in the experience of looking.
Though it is tempting to see Koether’s “Seasons” as a trashing of Poussin’s classicism, these works ultimately say more about the present than the past. In Poussin’s original suite, each canvas marries a season to a myth and to a particular moment of daylight: for example, winter at evening, represented by the Biblical flood; summer, by the meeting of Ruth and Boaz at midday. Eschewing such naturalism, Koether replaces the French artist’s craggy winter stormscape with a maelstrom of curlicues, presided over by two ghostly cats; her Summer restages the scene of Boaz’s fields as a backdrop for Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel’s signature index-finger salute. Interlopers in Poussin’s world, these figures embody present-day heroes and villagers, Vettel as an adrenaline-fueled Boaz, the cats as spectators to a spin cycle.
According to Koether, her characters (and by analogy, we) are party to a different set of seasons: those dictated by the market, whether in the form of quarterly reports or ready-to-wear collections, all of it underwritten by the anxious pulse of risk and reward. Lest viewers miss the point, each of the “Seasons” is inscribed with a large zigzag pattern, as if its fluctuating value had been plotted day by day. This could be the punch line of a screed against contemporary culture, but for Koether the point is to unleash the energies of the present, not to deny them.
Photo: Jutta Koether: Spring, 2012, oil on canvas, 63 by 86½ inches; at Bortolami.