A strange new world

Special to The Times

Barbara Kruger is an artist who genuinely enjoys the works of others, and her enthusiasm is infectious. That's why we asked her to take us on a tour of the brand-new Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And we weren't disappointed.

"A killer work" is how she succinctly describes Chris Burden's "Urban Light," a collection of 202 vintage street lamps that stand in tight formation outside the $56-million, Renzo Piano-designed building. "This piece is about history, the built environment, side-street spectacle and so much more. You can almost read it as logo for the museum."

In fact, as Kruger tours BCAM's inaugural exhibition -- 176 pieces, by 28 contemporary artists, mostly belonging to the museum's benefactors, Eli and Edythe Broad -- she has something to say about virtually every work in the museum, which opens to the general public Saturday with a free, three-day event including performances by the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company, live bands, DJs and more.

Our journey begins at the top of a bright-red escalator, which climbs up the side of the three-floor building and feeds us directly into the top. Each level features two 10,000-square-foot gallery spaces with 17- to 19-foot-high ceilings, but the first thing you see is an elevator large enough to hold dozens of people. Inside the elevator shaft, which is visible through floor-to-ceiling glass, is "Untitled (Shafted)," a graphic installation Kruger designed for BCAM. It features dozens of phrases and quotations, including one by George Orwell that reads, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever."

Such verbal taunts are typical for Kruger. Since the late 1970s, she has been laying bare the hypocrisy and underlying power systems in personal, institutional and social relationships with similar, hard-hitting graphic displays and installations. Yet in person, the 63-year-old UCLA professor couldn't be more gracious, amiable and passionate.

That's obvious with the first artwork we encounter: "String of Puppies," a 1988 sculpture by Jeff Koons that stands across from Kruger's elevator and just inside the door. It depicts a playful scene on a park bench, where a life-sized couple show off a litter of eight puppies. Kruger, who's dressed in black with a wild mane of graying corkscrew hair, walks up to it as if greeting an old friend and says, "This is such an important work."

It's important because Koons based the sculpture on a postcard he found by chance, and the photographer, Art Rogers, sued him over copyright infringement in 1991 and won. For Kruger, who uses found imagery in her work, that ruling was a disappointment, to say the least. "We live in a culture where ideas, sounds and images seep through each other with absolute fluidity," she says. "And [this piece] is an interesting transformation of photographic information into another form."

It's a fitting introduction to the rest of the show, because as soon as we enter the first gallery, dominated by more sculptures and paintings by Koons, the pop-cultural references multiply. There's a large painting featuring the likeness of the Incredible Hulk, a statue of Michael Jackson with his chimp Bubbles, and a Plexiglas case displaying Hoover vacuum cleaners. "Hearing Jeff talk about his work is strangely compelling," she adds. "In that he zigzags so intensely between mediation and declaration, so smoothly in an intensely actorly way. And I think the work is a display of those ambitions, contradictions and mannerisms."

After we pass by more "borrowed" imagery in the work of Andy Warhol and John Baldessari, which sandwich Koons' work with smaller spaces, we find ourselves in a room of paintings by Ed Ruscha. There are 10 canvases, including some of his early word paintings such as "Voltage" (1964). "Look at the way in which the clarity of Ruscha's paintings, their absolute brevity, works so eloquently in this clean white space," she says.

Brevity and eloquence become running themes for Kruger, who sees those as essential attributes to a great work of art -- even if it's the messy abstractions of Robert Rauschenberg's "combine" paintings, which occupy an adjacent room, or the gestural canvasses of Cy Twombly in yet another room. "Aren't these gorgeous?" she asks while looking at Twombly's "Untitled" (1955).

As we descend to the floors below, the work tends to get darker and edgier. A large painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat called "Beef, Ribs Longhorn" (1982) reminds Kruger of Basquiat's many graffiti images she used to see around Manhattan, while even larger paintings by Leon Golub, David Salle, Eric Fischl and Mark Tansey stimulate discussions about the use of found photos in contemporary painting -- playing with the notion of media, and the way the images are, as she says, "detonated by photography."

Yet it's Mike Kelley's installation behind a black curtain that animates Kruger the most. It's a section from a larger, 2005 installation at the Gagosian Gallery, where Kelley extrapolated photographs, sets, costumes and videos from hundreds of high school photographs found at swap meets. "Mike is a fantastic artist," she says. "His use of irony, of reenactments, his grasp of the goof, the sadness of bodies, of memory and sentiment pushed through a meat grinder on Mars." She pauses for a moment, and then says, "He'll hate that I said that."

After passing through another hallway, where we encounter a series of granite benches and an LED screen by her friend Jenny Holzer, we find ourselves in a room devoted to another friend, Cindy Sherman, who's famous for featuring herself in photographs wearing disguises. With more than 50 medium to large photos from every stage of Sherman's career, it's clearly Kruger's favorite room. The power and ideas are so strong, it makes her question why there are only four women in the show.

"I know that this exhibition mostly comes from Eli's collection," she says. "And I know that his collection contains work by a number of female artists. I just wish more of them received rooms like this."

Indeed, there's an undeniable machismo in much of the work on display, especially by the show's remaining artists: Damien Hirst, Charles Ray, Burden and Richard Serra, whose 200-ton "Band" occupies the bottom floor. But that doesn't bother Kruger in the least. In fact, she says they're all "incredibly ambitious artists" who have produced some of the most exciting artworks in recent memory.

Of course, Kruger is no stranger to such works, and as we arrive at the plaza level via the elevator, we see the rest of her installation, which includes a line from Edgar Allan Poe: "He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare."

"Looking at objects with a wild and vacant stare," repeats Kruger with a laugh. "Kind of funny for a museum, don't you think?"

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BROAD CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM

WHAT: A new building on the LACMA campus opens to the general public Saturday, with performances and more

WHERE: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

WHEN: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. this Sat.-Mon. Regular hours: noon-8 p.m. Mon., Tue., Thu.; noon-9 p.m. Fri.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

PRICE: Free this Sat.-Mon., but reservations required. BCAM admission included in LACMA prices. Regular: $12; $9, seniors/students; free, 17 and younger. Free after 5 p.m. and the second Tuesday of the month.

INFO AND RESERVATIONS: (323) 857-6010, www.lacma.org

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