100% (Portrait Robert Johnson)
Oil on canvas
Two panels, each 59 1/16 x 27 9/16 inches (150 x 70 cm)
© Jutta Koether
Courtesy Lévy Gorvy and Galerie Buchholz
100% (Portrait Robert Johnson) (1990) radiates with myriad shades of red, which Koether adopted as the primary color for her paintings in 1987. Over the years, she has explored red’s full range of tones, from deep crimson to luminous pink, at times using 20 different variants of the color on a single canvas. Far from a static symbol, red evokes a multiplicity of connotations and emotions, including pain, passion, shame, hysteria, anger, violence, and lust. Koether embraces this semantic fluidity, setting the color’s proliferating meanings into play. As red is often associated with femininity, her turn to the color can be read as a feminist gesture, particularly when viewed against the masculine stance of Neo-Expressionism, which dominated Cologne’s art scene throughout the 1980s. At the same time, her concentration on red served as a conceptual restriction, unifying her paintings by subjecting them to a self-imposed system.
On the left panel of this diptych, a flattened face hovers within a field of amorphous forms. Its large eyes are lined by exaggerated lashes that resemble beams of light. A delicate hand enters from the canvas’s right edge, guiding a cascade of small spheres on a curving path. On the adjacent panel, a litany of nouns and adjectives—“obsessed,” “painted,” “electric,” “spiritual,” “paranoia,” “hypostatic,” “skies,” “astral,” “aura,” “machine”—pose as suggestive captions. The painting’s namesake is Robert Johnson: a storied yet elusive blues musician whose innovative sound influenced bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Only two confirmed photographs of Johnson, who died mysteriously at age 27, exist; at the time that Koether created this painting, none were available. Her larger-than-life depiction gives form to Johnson’s legend, focusing not on his physical likeness—this was impossible—but on what she has termed “affective import”: the psychological pull of his persona. Incongruous and charged, 100% (Portrait Robert Johnson) illuminates Koether’s singular approach to painting: a medium that she pursues with “100%” commitment, unfazed by postmodern proclamations of its demise.