jutta koether

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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.)

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