Paint Rollers Get Last Word in 'Questions'


Angelenos no longer have Barbara Kruger to do their political questioning.

Kruger's monumental mural "Untitled (Questions)," a nearly football-field-size rendition of the American flag whose stripes were composed of nine politically themed questions, was painted over this weekend. It adorned the 29-foot by 218-foot south wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo for two years.

The mural--which bore questions including "Who is beyond the law?" "Who is free to choose?" "Who salutes longest?" and "Who prays loudest?"--had become a prominent downtown cultural landmark. But the artist and museum officials say that the satisfaction of having completed the mural outweighs their sadness at its demise.

It took a five-person crew two 10-hour days to cover the mural with an estimated 85 gallons of white paint. On Saturday, only a handful of passersby commented on the mural's daylong, paint-roller by paint-roller disappearance under the first coat, painter Joe Lopez said. One carload of men protested and screamed obscenities, while others took photos, and another filmed the disappearance with a 16-millimeter camera.

But another man said he was glad to see Kruger's mural go because the colors were "too dark," Lopez said. The man favored the bright, newly painted white expanse. The plain wall will probably attract graffiti artists, Lopez said.

The mural was originally commissioned to be part of MOCA's much talked about exhibition "A Forest of Signs," which opened in May, 1989. But it was stalled when community groups objected to the original design, which prominently featured the Pledge of Allegiance, as being insensitive to Japanese-Americans. Thousands of Japanese-Americans sent to relocation camps during World War II were forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily.

After two design changes and more than 18 months of negotiations with city and community groups, the mural was finally erected in time for Fourth of July celebrations in 1990--but with the agreement that it would come down after two years.

"It was a mutual agreement, and if the people in the community wanted it this way, then I feel it's only right to honor that," said Kruger, a New York-based artist who spends about half her time in Los Angeles. "Of course I'm sad, and I do wish it would be up longer, but I feel so fortunate that I could do it at all. I can't think of any other American city where that would happen on the wall of a museum."

Kruger, speaking by telephone from New York, said she regretted that the mural would not be in place during the forthcoming presidential election.

"I think (the mural) really foregrounds certain questions that we should all be vigilant about," she said. "It was intended to fill in that idea of democracy--not to have it just appropriated (by politicians), but to really have it mean something. It was done soon after the last election, when the politicians were wrapping themselves in the flag, and I felt that the relationship to patriotism was so unexamined."

The commercially painted mural, nearly three stories high and more than two-thirds the length of a football field, is the largest work ever created by Kruger, who is known for striking, advertising-like pairings of words and images that take on issues such as consumer culture, women's rights and the religious right.

Kruger, a politically active artist who recently designed abortion rights posters that were put up in 1,000 New York locations during the Democratic Convention, has also gained much attention lately for a series of magazine covers. She designed a June Newsweek cover that asked "Whose values?" in reference to campaign rhetoric about family values.

Alan Furuta, who was chairman of the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee during negotiations on the mural, said that although the mural was soon "somewhat accepted" by the community, there are still those opposed to its content.

"I think the feeling is that we made a compromise . . . and now it's time to go on to the next project. But we'd like to see the museum entertain ideas of what to do (with the wall) in the future."

The demise of the mural coincides with the temporary closure of the museum to accommodate massive construction of the surrounding 1st Street Plaza redevelopment project. The museum will someday paint a billboard-sized sign on the wall identifying the Temporary Contemporary and announcing its scheduled reopening in 1994.

"What else goes up on the wall besides that sign, I don't think they've decided," said museum spokeswoman Dawn Setzer.

As for Kruger, she says she has not ruled out replicating the mural on a smaller scale. In fact, she erected a 60-foot-by-40-foot version of it at New York's Mary Boone Gallery during the Persian Gulf War.

Times staff writer Vicki Torres contributed to this report.

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