She Has a Way With Words

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A decade ago, Barbara Kruger scandalized the Japanese American community of Little Tokyo with her proposal to paint the Pledge of Allegiance, bordered by provocative questions, on the side of a warehouse in the heart of the historic downtown neighborhood. That the warehouse was and still is occupied by the Museum of Contemporary Art, known at the time as the Temporary Contemporary, did little to assuage the feelings of those in the community who remembered all too well having to recite the pledge while interred at Manzanar and other wartime camps. To them, Kruger’s concept was an affront.

A year of community meetings ensued, and the artist listened and negotiated. In the end, she offered to eliminate the pledge from her mural proposal, while still retaining a series of questions painted in the colors and format of the American flag: “Who is bought and sold? Who is beyond the law? Who is free to choose? Who follows orders? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?” The piece remained on the wall without incident for two years, from 1990 to 1992.

Today, the first major retrospective of her career opens in that same warehouse (which has since been renamed for David Geffen), with two decades of art displayed throughout the museum. As Kruger, 54, prepared for the show, she recalled that earlier experience.


“Everything we do in life involves social relations,” she said reflectively. “I’m not the kind of person who says, ‘This is my inspiration and if you mess with it, you are denigrating it.’ I was lucky that it happened at all. I can’t think of any other town where that could happen on such a large scale.”

Such generosity of spirit might come as a surprise to many who have followed Kruger’s career since she became famous in the 1980s for her bold, confrontational works of art. Some of her most memorable work has consisted of large-scale montages of cropped black-and-white photographs emblazoned with trenchant texts such as, “When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook.” Or “Your moments of joy have the precision of military strategy.” Or “Promise anything but give us nothing.”

Neither Kruger nor her art are what they might first appear. Born to the working class and yet by now a celebrated insider in the elitist art world, Kruger is a media-savvy professional who knows how to dodge questions about her life.

She is also a charismatic, engaging woman who likes to ask as many questions as she answers. The complexity and even the subtlety of Kruger’s sensibility--and her desire to communicate--come to light in this survey of approximately 70 pieces, which emphasizes room-sized installations from the last decade, as well as videos, sculptures, photographs, prints, books, T-shirts and knickknacks.


A bustle of urban energy under an impressive mop of frosty, curly hair, Kruger wears all black to conduct a tour of her retrospective. Although her work often is lumped together with the theory-driven art of the ‘80s, she takes pains to assert that she and her work are “more hot than cool.”

“My work is pretty accessible to viewers, which doesn’t make it any less complicated,” Kruger notes. “The coolest thing is to be able to take complicated ideas and communicate them in a simple language. Hopefully, I’ve done that.”


For 20 years, Kruger’s work has been praised by critics, featured on magazine covers, taught at universities, represented by top art galleries, bought by major collectors and, in 1990, immortalized in a monograph titled “Love for Sale.” She is also a writer, known for stylish essays in publications ranging from the New York Times to Artforum, and that work has been collected in a book called “Remote Control.” Yet Kruger was overlooked as many of her ‘80s art-star friends and peers--Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Richard Prince, Julian Schnabel--were given one or more museum retrospectives, a distinction that helps to ensure an artist’s place in the history books. Until now, the larger museums resisted surveying what has been called her “theater of dissent.”

The current show is organized by MOCA curator Ann Goldstein, who spent five years on what is certain to prove a controversial exhibition. Known for her allegiance to Conceptual art, Goldstein defends in advance the decision to do the show now.

“Although there is a lot of negativity toward the ‘80s, and [Kruger] is associated with that decade, one must remember that it was an incredibly productive decade driven by a number of women artists. She was one of the first women to address representation and show that pictures and words have determined how we are defined and confined.”

In terms of getting her moment, Kruger does not feel the latecomer, saying that the timing is “perfect.” With a what-me-worry shrug, she says, “I want to be as effective as possible. I’m not convinced that to be effective is to fill a white room every year.”

In fact, she points out, for the past 15 years she has produced very few salable objects for gallery or museum shows. Instead, she concentrated on the public realm, conceiving, for example, the 200-foot-long sculptural letters “Picture This” with architects Henry Smith-Miller and Laurie Hawkinson and landscape architect Nicholas Quennell at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Or the terrazzo floor inlaid with slogans at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. Last year, she installed a text piece for a Strasbourg, France, train depot that translates “Empathy can change the world.”


Kruger’s art, she explains, is about communication: “I believe in the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Why do people become artists? For some reason, you have a need to create a connection of some kind. It sensitizes you to the world.”

Typical of that sensibility is her decision to include a public component to her L.A. retrospective--a citywide blitz of 15 billboards and countless wild postings, executed and installed in both English and Spanish. Most will use her photo of a woman peering through a magnifying glass with the droll refrain, “It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it,” but a video billboard on Sunset Boulevard at Sweetzer Avenue will show various short clips she’s created.

Kruger develops her ideas on a computer, later transferring the results to billboard-sized images, not to mention her stage sets for the 1997 tour by the rock group Rage Against the Machine. She is taking full advantage of the openness and scale of the Geffen Contemporary. “It’s a pleasure to have this much space,” she enthuses, waving a hand at towering walls to be covered with her images and text. Since much of the show here has been designed specifically for the Geffen, she will redesign it for the smaller galleries at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where it will be on view from July 13 to Oct. 22, 2000.

“Architecture is my first love,” Kruger says. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect, but I was bad at math. There was no way for me to pursue it.”

At the Geffen, she designed the galleries to maximize the impression of monumentality and sensory overload. A horizontal wall at the entrance appears to be covered in huge dots that are, in fact, an enormous black-and-white photo of a needle posed above a man’s open eye with the warning: “They blind your eyes and drain your brain.” A second wall shows a woman wearing a mask of ice cubes with the words, “You stone my face and harden my heart.”

Faced with these, one reflexively responds, “Who? Who is she talking about?”

“My work is about how people are with each other,” Kruger says. “It’s about social relations. I’m using aggressiveness and direct address to foreground that. It’s what we do to each other. There is no ‘you’ or ‘I.’ It’s not hierarchical or a battle of the sexes or us versus them. That thinking is so old and due for a sabbatical. People tend to draw battles of us versus them. The sublime versus the emotional. I find that to be off the mark because it just totally misses the big picture.”

What is the big picture? In gallery after gallery filled with various incarnations of her signature photos and text rendered in plastic, magnesium or vinyl, the content is constant. “I am a newspaper junkie, and every time I open the paper it offers more material for what I do,” she says.

“It’s about fear of difference and wanting to destroy it. From road rage to war, the behavior is not that dissimilar. Whether it is a battle around issues of race or aesthetics, it’s all nuts.”

To those who criticize her work as moralistic, Kruger insists, “I never say, ‘That’s not about me.’ I live in the world, and I’m a symptom of its good and bad stuff, but the world is a crazy place. I’ve chosen to make work about that craziness.” With a wry chuckle, she adds, “It’s an incredibly rich palette.”

Two years ago, at New York’s prestigious Mary Boone Gallery, Kruger produced a series of fiberglass sculptures of compromised celebrities, including John F. and Robert Kennedy hoisting Marilyn Monroe on their shoulders, an image that landed on the cover of Art in America. Looking at the sculptures now, on the mezzanine of the Geffen, Kruger explains, “Whenever I walk around a city, I look at the public statuary. I decided to play with the myth of heroism. What gets historicized? What gets edited?”

That show was complemented by her installation of video projections and spoken word recordings at New York’s Jeffrey Deitch Projects, as well a number of city buses wrapped with quotations from figures such as Malcolm X, Courtney Love and H.L. Mencken, the last of whom described Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl says of Kruger: “She does for the world’s verbal-visual, manipulative racket what Richard Wagner did for the Teutonic unconscious, making it sing its insane heart out. Kruger is a very good artist [recognizing that] . . . what can sell soap can smash sexism.”

Schjeldahl refers, in part, to her outspoken feminism, exemplified by her poster for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington in support of legal abortion, which included a woman’s face bisected into positive and negative photographic reproductions, accompanied by the text: “Your Body is a battleground.”

Kruger, however, resists being pigeonholed as poster girl for political and feminist art. “I make work to some degree about power,” she says. “The difference is that power is everywhere, from the museum to the corporate boardroom. I don’t make political art or feminist art. These marginalizing categories narrow the reality of what you do.”


The in-your-face attitude of Kruger’s art seems as New York as decent pastrami on rye. Yet since she bought a house in Hollywood’s Beachwood Canyon in 1990, Kruger has spent most of her time in L.A., though she still keeps homes in Manhattan and on Long Island. After multiple protests that she is not a “lifestyle artist,” Kruger agreed to meet for an interview at her home.

The interior of her hillside Mediterranean is white-walled and spare, furnished with simple modern chairs and table and a leather sofa. She has painted the floors gray and put moss-green tiles on the stairs and in the bath. She can see the Hollywood sign from her kitchen, and generous windows also afford views of downtown and treetops. The music of Galaxy 500 floats from upstairs.

“When I’m walking in the hills, as a kid from Newark, I’m as happy as can be,” she says. She has been awake since dawn, having risen to call her mother, who is ill, in Florida. Despite a hectic schedule for her show, last weekend she toured the modern homes of Silver Lake by L.A. architects such as Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler and John Lautner. With obvious relish, she brings out a book on Schindler from a shelf filled with large picture books on architecture. “Architecture is my thing. I think in terms of light and space,” she says.

Seated at a round green table by the window, Kruger says something that might explain this love of residential architecture: “I grew up in a 2 1/2-room apartment, where I slept in the living room. My property here is the first anyone in my family has ever owned.”

She was raised in a lower-middle-class family in the largely African American area of Newark, N.J. Her father worked as a chemical technician, her mother as a legal secretary. She says her family was neither political nor intellectual, yet feelings of class difference would ultimately fuel the message of her art. “I come from a different class than most of my colleagues,” she says evenly. “I’m sensitized to issues of race and difference.

“I never had my own room. Every Sunday, we used to go look at model homes, though we never had the money to buy one. I was shocked, as a kid, when I finally saw a furnished room without a red rope across the door. That’s why architecture in this town is so fabulous to me.”

Asked whether this upbringing is a factor in her art, she pauses, then tentatively says, “There is no doubt that, to some degree, the experience I have of the world is reflected in the work I make. But it’s not biography! I use these words for the readings they might suggest to people and all the meanings they might be conjuring up. I don’t even agree with some of the texts that I use.”

A scholarship sent her to Syracuse University, but she felt alienated from the mostly upper-middle-class students, especially the young women who talked about their Pappagallo shoes and prep schools. “I think a lot of kids become artists because they can draw,” she recalls. “I was one of those kids, but to be honest, being from my class, it’s not like I thought I could have a life of leisure and go to college to study art.” She left after one year because of the death of her father, then transferred to Parsons School of Design in New York, commuting to classes from home.

At Parsons, photographer Diane Arbus was a role model, because “she was the first woman I had met who didn’t wash the kitchen floor six times a day.” Another teacher, graphic designer Marvin Israel, encouraged her to put together a portfolio of her designs for book covers and page layouts. She left Parsons after one year, when she landed her first job as page designer for Mademoiselle magazine. In 1967, at age 22, she was named art director for the magazine, later moving on to work part time as a picture editor at House and Garden.

“I loved being able to select the transparencies from all those great architectural photographers,” she remembers.

“I got my education at Conde Nast,” she says. “With major differences, my job as a designer shifted into my art work.” This background in magazine publishing fueled such pieces as her photograph of a goofy-faced toy with the slogan “Buy me. I’ll change your life.” She admits, “I couldn’t have done that work if I hadn’t been a page designer at Mademoiselle. People are always comparing me to the Russian Constructivists, but I’d never heard of them. I knew from magazine design.”


The MOCA retrospective underscores her origins in the graphic arts with a display of a tear sheet showing a pair of buckle-toed pumps. In the next gallery is her sendup of the fashion industry, a photograph of a hand offering a credit card imprinted with the text, “I shop therefore I am.”

“Humor is an important part of the work,” she says. “I’m trying to create a collision between the hilarious and the tragic.” She extended her satire to canvas shopping totes silk-screened with the phrase and sold in museum stores. In response to those who lambasted her for letting her ethically charged art be used by the very forces she purports to criticize, Kruger says simply, “It’s called entering the culture, and I’m pleased to have done that.”

Although Kruger might have remained an art director, ensuring greater financial security for herself, she insists that “I couldn’t have.”

“When you are an artist, you choose to somehow convey what it means to live a life. You can do that in a forthright manner. To solve design problems about selling a car or a scarf is a different practice. You have to be your client’s idea of perfection. I am my own client.”

Like that other graphically trained artist from a poor family, Andy Warhol, Kruger intuitively felt that her sense of difference could be an asset in the world of contemporary art. By 1970, she was working part time for House and Garden and had moved to a TriBeCa loft. She recalls seeing Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery, but she says she was more impressed by the monumental woven sculptures of Magdalena Abakanowicz at the Museum of Modern Art. Abakanowicz was among the early feminist artists to integrate traditional women’s handicrafts with sculptural forms as an alternative to the then-male-dominated field of painting.

For several years, Kruger crocheted, sewed and painted bright-hued and erotically suggestive objects, some of which were included by curator Marsha Tucker in the 1973 Whitney Biennial. Yet Kruger felt the repetitive nature of handicrafts “was putting my brain to sleep.” Asked if such early work would be included in her retrospective, Kruger says with a laugh, “I don’t even know what happened to it.”

Teaching part time at various universities “made me think about my work in a way that wasn’t about strategizing and getting shows,” she says. “I discovered reading with [authors] Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and it changed my life. Not because of their theory but because they were great writers.”

Reading led to writing, both poetry and criticism. “Writing is an empowering thing for me, to control a situation that can be humiliating or depressing. I started taking pictures and writing poetry at a time when the art world was largely the domain of men.”

During the 1970s, she was influenced by poet/punk rocker Patti Smith, hung out at the Mudd Club and developed a devotion to rock music. With her extensive knowledge of music and film, her grasp of charismatic presentation and pithy wordplay, one wonders why she hasn’t joined her artist friends--Sherman, Salle and Schnabel--in crossing over to make movies.

“I look at the art world as marginalized but cordial,” Kruger explains. “It’s a more of a hands-on arena in which to make statements. In making films, a lot of your time is spent chasing vapor, you know, taking meetings to try and get funding.”

By the late ‘70s, the anti-institutional stance of Conceptual art led many followers to present photographs with text. In 1977, when she was a visiting artist at UC Berkeley, Kruger’s work appeared to follow this trend. The following two years, she taught at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and completed “Picture/Readings,” simple photographs of modest houses alternating with panels of words. Kruger recalls, “I never thought of myself as a Conceptual artist. I didn’t want to undermine the strategy of mastery. My work has that consideration of ‘what goes where’ to have some semblance of beauty, some sense of ‘That’s it.’ ”

That instinct led her to reach back to her skills as art director and develop her splashy and eye-catching montage style. Using how-to manuals from the 1940s, she rephotographed the pictures in black-and-white, enlarging and cropping details and adding incendiary red-bordered texts such as, “Your comfort is my silence.” She added lacquered red wood frames to reinforce their status as “objects.” As she told critic Carol Squiers, “I wasn’t going to stick them on the walls with pushpins. I wanted them to enter the marketplace, because I began to understand that outside the market there is nothing.” In 1982, she began to sell the work, via the Gagosian Gallery, in L.A.

Kruger, who had moved back to New York in 1980, was recognized quickly as one of a number of smart and sassy female artists who used photography, text, video or film to deconstruct gender stereotypes and confront the seeming neutrality of art institutions. The group included, notably, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Bloom, Sarah Charlesworth, Nancy Dwyer and Louise Lawler. During the 1980s, these artists experienced unprecedented success in an art world that as recently as the 1960s had been all but closed to women. (Kruger remembers how uncomfortable she felt in the late ‘60s at Max’s Kansas City, the watering hole of successful male artists.) By 1987, Kruger was the only female artist represented by the powerful Mary Boone Gallery.


At her home today, with its sun decks and overgrown terraces, Kruger appears to be happily settled in L.A. “If every other American city is about the consumption of culture, New York and L.A. are about the production of culture, about power and its potential for abuse. I find it compelling to be in such places; it provides grist for my work. Plus, it’s great to have botany in my life. I love New York, but it’s nice to enlarge your rut.

“I never put my life into moments when I make art and when I don’t make art,” she says. “The perpetual everyday-ness of L.A. is very comforting. Newark may be close to New York City, but you get no sense of it living there. It’s a very poor city. I learned a lot growing up there. I never thought I’d have a pot to piss in, so everything now is just cake, and the icing.”


“Barbara Kruger,” today through Feb. 13, 2000. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. $6 adults, $4 students and seniors, children under 12 free. (213) 626-6222.