|Courtesy the Geffen Contemporary|
YOU KNOW THE WORK OF BARBARA Kruger, even if you don't know her name. You have seen it on billboards, on T-shirts, on magazine covers, on the sides of buildings. You have taken note of its bold, elemental marriage of word and image, a marriage that seems at once shotgun and made in heaven — consumerist heaven, phallocentric heaven, the heaven of the spectacle. You have been affronted, however vaguely, by its insistent, insinuating address at “you” (“Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?”). You have felt guilty. You have gotten mad. You have stopped in your tracks. You are Barbara Kruger's target audience.
Who is Barbara Kruger, and why is she saying all these terrible things about you? Back at the recession end of the decade, a string of those hectoring queries — “Who does time? Who follows orders? Who salutes longest?” — stretched across the business end of the Temporary Contemporary (as MOCA's Geffen annex was known then). Kruger had emblazoned them there, in the general shape of an American flag — having come up with this format and these questions after extensive interaction with the Little Tokyo community, whose sensitivity to issues of patriotism had put the kibosh on a more pointedly political project.
Barbara Kruger has a lot to say, and many ways to say it. She has worked in a vast array of media and métiers, writing everything from poetry to music criticism, organizing everything from exhibitions to public projects, presenting her normally black-and-white-and-red word-'n'-image configurations on everything from billboards to tote bags to matchbook covers, and working in media as diverse as paper, etched metal, and film. She has done everything we might call “art” except live performance. And maybe music, although she did do the sets for Rage Against the Machine's 1997 tour. We're waiting for her to do an opera. The Threepenny Opera, perhaps?
Kruger's work is in fact very Brechtian — arch, caustic, judgmental, taciturn and thoroughly devoted to the spectacle, both exploiting it and deconstructing it. Every Kruger image or installation engulfs you in information, but allows — even encourages — your critical distance by hurling weirdly familiar pictures at you, pictures embellished with words in a strangely self-effacing typeface (Futura Bold Italic, for the most part). The effect is vertigo-inducing and quite irksome, but at the same time, incorporating as it does those stock pictures from 1940s and '50s advertising and those rhythmic, rock-lyric-like declamations, it is readily recognizable, very easily comprehended, and oddly enjoyable in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. It ultimately makes you complicit in its cleverness, which of course is the whole idea. Kruger's brazen, read-it-from-the-highway visual style and her verbal phrasing, so redolent of slogans, clichés, political commercials, ad-campaign phrases, greeting-card bromides and the like, can be recognized and read from a mile away — although they rarely allow you that comfortable distance, physically much less psychologically.
The aforementioned materials are displayed, or at least documented, in MOCA's “midcareer retrospective.” (And many of the commercial objects are available in the shop — better buys than those van Gogh scarves, because she designed the tchotchkes herself.) The show is dominated by several immense installations, in which the ominous phrases come at you visually, sonically and tactilely, and the banal, frightening images descend on you like Furies. There is one quiet sequence of galleries where Kruger's early word works, the typography-photograph juxtapositions of 197880, are tidily collected and displayed. But even these smaller, more bookish apparitions prove unsettling, whether in their off-kilter poetry (“The technology of disposability/The appearance of stucco/The diving board as metaphor/The appreciation of athletic prowess”), their aggressive revelation of social presumptions, or even their dry, vacant, faux-Hemingway prose (coupled in her earliest series with black-and-white photographs of bland architecture — photos, incidentally but unmistakably, taken here in L.A.).
Kruger's latest work is also on view, upstairs, and includes several painted fiberglass sculptures that seem to lift a page from, of all people, Jeff Koons. But where Koons' grating mega-figurines wallow knowingly in narcissism, Kruger's look for a deeper, harsher message. Not yet articulated with the same intellectual precision as her flat imagery, these statues still address a society of the spectacle, and seek redress for its delusions and its ills. Barbara Kruger thus spins her critical gyre ever wider around the culture of consumption and its addiction to imagery.
KRUGER'S ART WASN'T ALWAYS SO GRAPHOCENTRIC. IT was, however, impelled from the very beginning by the interaction of personal and social concerns, specifically her search for identity as a woman and female artist. She emerged in the early '70s as a lively practitioner of “femmage,” utilizing and valorizing forms and materials associated with “women's work,” and evolving into pattern painting. But by 1977 painting had become for her just a matter of making pleasing objects and feeding an art career.
When she was in college, combining image and word was a radical notion: Painters and sculptors eschewed words; conceptual artists avoided just about anything else. But the ferociously well-read, hyperarticulate Kruger bagged school, taking a job at Condé Nast and â
becoming chief art director at Mademoiselle magazine within two years. Even after leaving that job, she continued a successful career in graphic design — picking up pointers along the way and gradually gaining the conviction that the visually dynamic combination of words and pictures was the appropriate approach for her to take.
Is Kruger the Andy Warhol of the boomer generation? The parallels are intriguing. Like Warhol, Kruger comes from an East Coast industrial working-class background, from which she rose by wowing them early and often in the graphic-design field. What she learned, and what she devised, in the consumerist realm of visual persuasion, she ultimately turned back on that realm by channeling her knowledge, as Warhol did, into her “fine” art, a fine art that people can readily comprehend. Both share a pop sensibility, and like Warhol, Kruger has extended her artistic range into the moving image.
Unlike the Popmeister from Pittsburgh, though, Kruger specializes in the verbalized graphic image, a format whose most convincing motion occurs most convincingly either on wind-whipped banners or on LED signs. (Or clothing on a moving body — perhaps the T-shirts are the tip of an iceberg.) Kruger has done a few electronic signs, but has not exploited that medium to the extent her fellow socioverbal artist Jenny Holzer has. And, since Kruger's breakout series of lenticular-screen pieces (with which she came to international prominence in the 1982 Documenta), she's only infrequently resorted to time-based techniques — although the impact of her more recent installations has been amped by ominous voice soundtracks. Rather, the bulk of Kruger's work, especially public work, has consisted of placards on transit shel-
ters, mosaics in lobby floors, quotations
(by Franz Kafka, Mary McCarthy and
Malcolm X) emblazoned across (stopped) buses, quasi-political cartoons on The New York Times op-ed page, and other fixed surfaces.
In this important respect, Kruger is more John Heartfield than Andy Warhol. Berliner Heartfield's cunning collages, originally confabulated during his Dada days, leveled concise, biting criticism at the goody-goody pretensions of Germany's interwar Weimar Republic — and even more so at the sinister powers, political and economic, who took advantage of Weimar's weaknesses. Heartfield was adept at incorporating words into his cut-and-paste political cartoons (his ironic use of German Gothic typography stuck it time and again to the nationalists), and his montages of Nazis, fat cats and bureaucrats remain some of the most elegant and powerful graphic art of modern times. In these postmodern times, Kruger's similarly emphatic vision takes up where Heartfield's heartfelt communism left off. (Her projects in Germany take on a certain poignance in this light.)
Her stark, lucid, unpretty (if piss-elegant) approach to word, image and word-image has made Kruger's contributions to numerous social campaigns, including abortion rights, health care (including AIDS research), domestic violence and other urgent matters, among our era's most powerful images of persuasion. It also makes her work eye-popping, traffic-stopping and instantly recognizable, irrespective of its context. That has to be a Barbara Kruger bumper sticker or coffee mug or umbrella. It's not a hard style to imitate, but like Keith Haring's, it's almost impossible to get right. If you hadn't a clue who was showing at the Geffen Contemporary, you'd know just by glancing in the window.
BARBARA KRUGER, A RETROSPECTIVE | At MOCA's GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY | 152 N. Central Ave., downtown | Through February 13