PRINT February 1991


I’m interested in making art that displaces the powers that tell us who we can be and who we can’t be.
—Barbara Kruger, 1989

IT SOMETIMES SEEMS as if curators, critics, and journalists alike are doing their best to eradicate “critical” post-Modernist art from the historical record. This can happen even when the opposite effect is intended: the organizers of the “Image World” exhibition, for example, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1989-90, lavished upon works by Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Allan McCollum, and others such a heady blend of museum formalism and disco pyrotechnics that this art’s social and discursive implications were all but obliterated. It was not surprising, then, that when the New York Times photography critic Andy Grundberg decided to issue a postmortem on post-Modernist photography, “Image World” served as his exhibit A.1 Many people seem eager to forget the relatively brief spell during which the term “post-Modernist art” meant something other than an ahistorical traffic in once historically specific styles. This is due, no doubt, as much to the successes as to the failures of the art that warranted that designation.

In the early ’80s, during the heyday of neo-Expressionist painting, it was hard to imagine that the unprepossessing, photo-based works of the “critical” post-Modernists would ever find a market. Yet since the late 1970s a handful of influential critics and art historians had argued for the significance of this radically antiexpressionist art. Interpreting it through ideas borrowed from Marxist, deconstructionist, and feminist texts, these writers theorized post-Modernist art as a reflexive challenge to Modernist esthetic tropes. Post-Modernist art proposed a radically pluralist conception of visual culture, one that helped to expose the hierarchical social structures inherent in modern systems of cultural classification.

Few if any of the artists who benefited from the claims of these politically engaged critics would have wanted to be tagged “political artists.” Aside from the marginality that such a denomination tends to impose, the majority of these artists were women, whose feminist concerns had for years been overlooked—or openly derided—by partisans not only of the political right but also of the left. Throughout the period of their obscurity, post-Modernist artists—both female and male—were not inclined to contradict supportive critics who associated their work with Marxist critiques. But with increased visibility and viability in the marketplace, many of these artists adjusted their practices to distance themselves from such an identification and to increase their sense of independence.2

Meanwhile, at the same time that some post-Modernists were moving away from the appearance of political commitment in their work, political activists concerned with AIDS, health care, housing, and abortion rights were beginning to deploy the devices of post-Modernist art in order to inform and provoke audiences that extended well beyond the limits of the art world.3 Also, certain post-Modernist artists were not content to limit their practices to art-world values and narrowly esthetic concerns. More than any other artist of her generation, Barbara Kruger has proven worthy of the term “crossover artist.” Political and esthetic, high and low, cheap and dear, public and private, practical and theoretical—it is not surprising that her highly visible practice has proven as favorite a target for criticism as any.

Never was so much said—and so vindictively—about the entry of politically engaged artists into the marketplace than when word got out, late in 1986, that Kruger had agreed to be represented by the Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Some objected to Boone’s notoriety as a power broker in the international art market and to her association with such neo-Expressionists as Julian Schnabel. Others noted the apparent contradiction in Kruger-the-feminist’s decision to join a gallery that for almost a decade had represented no women artists. She had alienated traditional humanists of both sexes, on both left and right, when, in 1981, she began to lift images from old advertising annuals and other such compendia of photographic clichés, which she enlarged, cropped, and then supplemented with bold slogans and crimson frames. This seductive form ensured that the works would circulate smoothly at every level in the late-capitalist economy of commodity signs. Moreover, though Kruger did her best to “welcome the female spectator into the audience of men,” she made some men feel intensely unwelcome.4

Kruger is frank about her refusal to participate in the romance of marginality. She believes that the market economy is ubiquitous, though no more so than the presence of politics: in “every deal we make, every face we kiss.”5 To this day, however, some commentators who find Kruger’s work indistinguishable from “the methods and strategies of advertising” are more interested in dismissing it as art than in considering why this equation exists.6 Sandwiched between partisans eager to savage her work for selling out and a voracious marketplace just as eager to consume it and neutralize its politics, Kruger’s situation has become emblematic of a predicament that confronts a handful of artists who achieved the improbable during the last decade when they developed politically engaged forms of art that were rewarded not with the customary neglect but with unprecedented success.

Since 1981, Kruger’s art has proceeded from the assumption that visual stereotypes and clichés play a significant role in our formation as social subjects. To demonstrate and to help impede the mechanism by which the stereotype achieves its result, she has deployed stock images that set in motion the processes of self-identification through which people interpolate themselves as constituents of the social order. Cutting across and otherwise littering these fields of self-identification, Kruger’s slogans confound this process of involuntary subjection. As Kate Linker has written, the slogans “intercept the stereotype, to suspend the identification afforded by the gratifications of the image.”7 In this way her photomontages have proven as empowering to some women as they have been intolerable to some men.

Kruger has responded to the rapid success of her style by diversifying the forms of her practice. This has done little to quiet her critics, yet one could argue—as I intend to in this essay—that her refusal to limit her work to any single venue, and her identity to a single vocation, has acted in concert with her formidable inventiveness and wit to preserve the radical potential of her art.

Among Kruger’s most ambitiously “public” outlets are her billboards and poster designs, which generally take on the crisp design of sophisticated advertising in order to inject difference into homogenous urban situations, and to question publicly the authority of social and cultural hierarchies and of the categories that reinforce them. Sometimes the site and the scale militate against Kruger’s radically antiauthoritarian message. On the occasion of a 1989 exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein and Schirnkunsthalle, for example, she got permission to hang five huge images on a building facade above the town square, placing the spectator in the untenable position of having to look up to them. Three of them showed differently cropped versions of a photograph in which a police officer thrusts forward a huge, leather-gloved hand, as if to stop traffic, or in any case to enforce the law. The fourth featured a man’s fist connecting with a woman’s chin, while the fifth showed a hand outstretched to proffer one of the work’s five slogans, which read, in German, “No Thought/No Doubt/No Goodness/No Pleasure/No Laughter.” This systematic cancellation of what, in a better world, might be known as civic virtues combined with the disjunctive, filmic montage of harsh imagery to counter the authoritarianism in the project’s mode of address.

Kruger’s billboards usually employ more playful means. The slogan that she has disseminated perhaps most widely appropriates a lyric from a Tina Turner song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” which she pairs with an image of a smug, chubby fellow about to take a bite from a banana; or with a Norman Rockwell-type illustration of a girl in pigtails attending to a little boy flexing a pathetic biceps. Public works such as these function precisely like the “hip” ads that intrude upon the urban environment; except that Kruger’s don’t quite conduct business as usual. Even such deceptively simple pieces work to diversify the increasingly limited messages that business and government are willing to put out.

Among the few instances in which Kruger’s work has functioned directly as agitprop was the poster she designed as an ad for “The Decade Show,” New York, in 1990. Typical of the ads she has designed for museum exhibitions, this one reserved the right to criticize what it promoted.8 The poster shows a face cropped between nose and hairline. Its dramatic horizontality echoes the shape of the white blindfold that covers the figure’s eyes. In a wide red rectangle within the blindfold, white letters read, “The Decade Show starring Reagan/Bush presents 10 years of almost NO MONEY for Health Care, Housing, Education, the Environment, and almost ALL MONEY for Weapons, Covert Operations, Corporate Tax Breaks, and Savings and Loan Bail Outs.”

Kruger tries to use humor to get beyond the rhetorical flatness of so much agitprop. In a recent series of posters for Manhattan bus shelters, she moves beyond her own procedures to dramatize the struggle over women’s reproductive rights. Appropriation here has nothing to do with the reuse of photographs; it encompasses an entire advertising genre. Kruger has set up and photographed men of different ages, races, and classes in stereotypical situations. To those images she adds a text that imagines a world in which men as well as women can conceive and bear children.

Image: Man in mid forties wearing a hard hat and looking uncomfortable.

Text: We’ve finally sent the kids off to school. We’re not getting any younger. I’ve got high blood pressure and arthritis. I just found out I’m pregnant. What should I do?

In works like these, Kruger has tried to foster a resistant public at the level of its receivership. There are risks, however, in attempting to intervene in urban space. For such space is not merely physical: it is invested—in every sense of that term—with social relations.9

In 1989, when Kruger accepted an offer by Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art to create a design for the 29-by-218-foot outside south wall of the Museum’s Temporary Contemporary annex, she found herself in a difficult situation that had to do precisely with the project’s geographical location. As part of the exhibition “A Forest of Signs,” MoCA commissioned Kruger to execute a work that would help people find the other-wise unmarked building. Kruger proposed a red-white-and-blue sign in which the words of the Pledge of Allegiance would be laid out like the stripes of the American flag, in white letters against a red field. Also recalling the flag, the name of the museum (MOCA/AT THE TEMPORARY CONTEMPORARY) would appear in a blue rectangle at upper left. Finally, in a band of smaller white letters at top and bottom, would be the following questions: 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? WHO DOES TIME?

As a response to the posturing of “patriotic” politicians, and to a justice system that assigns rights and metes out punishment according to the gender, wealth, and racial characteristics of those it declares offenders, this was a forceful proposal. However, Kruger had neglected to consider the position of the wall, on Central at First Street. The Japanese-American community of Little Tokyo also fronts on Central, and faces the south wall of the Temporary Contemporary. As MoCA discovered when the plan was presented to the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee, the Pledge of Allegiance meant something quite specific to the community’s residents: during World War II, Japanese-Americans forcibly displaced to internment camps had been made to repeat the pledge over and over, effectively transforming it into an instrument of torture. Forty years later, the thought of having to confront it daily in letters five feet tall revived painful associations. Kruger promptly withdrew the proposal.

Her second version of the plan retained the earlier design but put the questions where the pledge had been and consigned the pledge to the margins. Though impressed by her flexibility, the community rejected this proposal too.

Accompanied by a perky score, a woman in Reeboks and a suit is walking to work. Rosie O’Neill (Sharon Gless), public defender, is on her way to court to defend a rapist so lacking in remorse that he’s promised to come after Rosie if given half a chance. Abruptly, Rosie stops in her tracks. The TV camera cuts to something that has clearly caught her eye—the side of a building, 29 by 218 feet, painted like an immense American flag. The camera slowly pans the wall from left to right, over the cars in the lot on First Street and Central. Aligned like the stripes of the flag, five-foot-tall white letters spell out questions: 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? A car drives up. A middle-aged man opens the window and leans out to Rosie; it’s her liberal, yarmulke-wee ring Jewish boss. He gazes appreciatively at the wall, and intones, “One could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but investigating those questions.”

Barbara Kruger didn’t know that Untitled (Questions), her third and final proposal for the MoCA wall, would be on CBS’s The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, a primetime courtroom drama, until a friend called her and excitedly described what she’d just ’missed. But after four meetings during which Kruger described her proposal and listened to residents of Little Tokyo explaining the impact of her project on their lives, everyone had agreed that the questions alone would make a fine addition to the south wall of the Temporary Contemporary. While the production of public works has helped Kruger to maintain the critical edge of her practice, it is important not to separate what she has created for outdoor sites or museums from what she does in the more manifestly private circumstances of the commercial art gallery. First, it is as misleading today to identify outdoor urban spaces as “public” as it is delusional to see the domestic interior as a haven from the ideological incursions of big business and the state. The open debate and free exchange of information that together testify to the existence of a “public sphere” are increasingly rare phenomena in Western democracies.10 Similarly, although political struggle can and does intervene in shaping social space, this occurs against the far greater forces of the state and of international capital.11 Given the nature of late-capitalist urban space and of art’s susceptibility to the forces that shape it, there is nothing about the placement of art outside the commercial gallery that ensures its status as “public” art; any more than the situation of art in the “private” space of the gallery necessarily prevents it from maintaining a “public” purpose.12

Until recently, Kruger used her commercial gallery shows for straightforward installations of discrete works of art that tried to consolidate a sense of (feminist) community. But in 1989 and 1990 she created installations in Santa Monica and Chicago that used the architecture of the gallery to generate the same results. (In doing so she furthered the logic of ’60s and ’70s artists who had worked to discredit the idea of the gallery as a neutral space for the disinterested contemplation of art objects.) As she handled them, the spaces were transformed into theaters of condescension. The bulk of both works remained beneath the visitor’s feet: in bold white letters on the crimson-painted floor was inscribed, “All that seemed beneath you is speaking to you now. All that seemed deaf hears you. All that seemed dumb knows what’s on your mind. All that seemed blind is following in your footsteps.” That this text began at the most distant reaches of these rectangular galleries meant that visitors had to traverse the space to look down on it and to read it. Of course, looking down on it was precisely the point—looking down and having it talk back to you at the same time. In Chicago, to heighten the restive effect, Kruger added a single large photowork on the wall opposite the entrance. To see it properly you had to move well into the room—otherwise two thin columns that stand in the gallery would obscure your view. These framing columns accentuated the height of the image, which extended from floor to ceiling: the over-ten-foot-tall head of a young woman who peered at the spectator, holding a magnifying glass to her even more greatly enlarged right eye. In white letters on crimson bands, the slogan began with the familiar refrain, “It’s A Small World.” In smaller letters closer to the floor, it continued: “but not if you have to clean it.”13

Works like these are not Kruger’s first to interrogate the politics of space. As early as 1977, in the “Hospital Series,” one of the earliest of her works to juxtapose pictures and words, Kruger was ruminating upon the ways that architecture not only shapes our daily lives but assists in our formation as social subjects.14 The series consists of eight four-part works, each juxtaposing a photograph taken by Kruger at a hospital on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (a plastic cup of tongue depressors sits on a piece of stainless-steel hospital furniture, for example), a text (such as “The manipulation of the object/The blaming of the victim/The accusation of hysteria/The making mute”), a medical illustration (two men in surgical regalia stand over a third, unprotected figure), and finally an isolated word or phrase, clearly in the voice of the patient: “No,” or elsewhere, “No don’t/Not now/Go away/Not that/Please/Not here/Please don’t.” The “Hospital Series” scrutinized the trappings of hospital architecture and evoked the protests of its patients. Given the state of health care in America today, its deadpan enumerations of the effects of medical technologies have a disturbing prescience: “The technology of early death/The providing of consumer goods to a dying populace/The manufacture of plague/The denial of epidemic.”

Works like this presage Kruger’s recent installations, including one that not only exploits architecture but expands upon efforts nascent in the “Hospital Series” and elsewhere to confront the objectification of the body and the “decarnalizing” effects of stereotype. The installation, which also marks the emergence of a powerful nation—the newly unified Germany—is among her most disturbing and challenging works to date. If the earlier gallery installations resulted in theaters of condescension, then this one, at the Cologne Kunstverein in August 1990, must rank as a new theater of cruelty.

Kruger painted the floors her usual crimson. But because of the extent to which she saturated the space with this color, and because of the violence of the project as a whole, “crimson” must finally cede to “blood.”15 Painted in German (like all the texts here) onto the red floors of two long galleries were texts in white letters, including: “The vomiting body screams ‘Wake up’ to the autopsied body which murmurs ‘I love your hair’ to the vain body which hisses ‘Lick my ass’ to the blind body which demands ‘Turn on the TV’ to the exhausted body which pleads ‘Hit me harder’ to the giggling, hilarious body which yells ‘I want you inside of me’ to the dead body which is hard to dispose of.” Each space was bracketed by two giant wall pieces. Running interference between these photo text works, Kruger also had the seven ceiling beams of the galleries painted red. On them, in white letters, were posed such questions as “Who makes history? Who does the crime? Who does the time? Who is healed? Who is housed? Who speaks? Who is silent? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?”

In the first gallery the phototexts included a familiar image of a doctor peering into a woman’s eyes, with the slender inscription, “Who will write the history of tears?” Altogether more ironic, if equally cautionary, was the facing work: superimposed over grossly enlarged salami were the words, “Look for the moment when pride becomes contempt.” On the other side of the wall, in the second gallery, was an image that resembled one of those Newport ads of truculently frolicking straight couples. A guy nibbled his girlfriend’s earlobe, prompting her broad grin of pleasure/pain, and a caption, imploding in a tight crimson button, read: “Dying is like living only different. Bleeding is like breathing only not exactly.” The final billboard also made pointed reference to the consequences of stereotype. Like something out of A Clockwork Orange, it pictured the massive hand and head of a scary, clownish type who, except for a woolen ski hat and shades, was completely sheathed in black rubber—including the protruding schnoz that he drolly shoved out of joint. The slogan: “All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype.”

Kruger’s manipulation of the architecture of the gallery space relates to still another aspect of her recent practice: on three occasions Kruger has collaborated with a team of architects, the New York firm of Smith-Miller + Hawkinson. Of these, a concept for a waterfront pier in Seattle is the most modest plan, though what became of it makes it especially noteworthy. The principal feature of the proposal was a large 19th-century wooden shed—the better preserved of two on Pier 62/63. The walls and roof of the shed were to be removed to expose its elegant framework of Howe trusses. This skeletal structure—sheathed in chain link—would then function as a sign of the historical significance of the site. It was the purpose of the plan to impart details of that history to visitors.

With the help of a local urban historian, Gail Dubrow, the team learned that the pier, which falls under the jurisdiction of both Seattle’s Arts Commission and its Parks Department, was once central in the city’s fishing industry. After the construction of the railroads in the 19th century, the shed housed a fish cannery. It eventually fell into disrepair, but survived as storage for the city, witnessing shifts in the local economy and population and a dockside history of labor disputes. The proposal called for documentation of such events, as well as narrative details collected from oral histories, to be either housed in the shed or incised into the wood surfaces of the pier. Finally, on the exterior of the shed’s new, translucent metal skin, huge red letters would spell out Kruger’s own texts for the benefit of urban and maritime traffic.

The Seattle Arts Commission awarded the team the commission in August 1989. At five in the morning on a Sunday in March 1990, the Parks Department demolished the shed. There had always been a certain resistance on the part of this city agency to the plan for the pier. Usually the objections were articulated in terms of expense; the project, after all, was supposed to be temporary. But local real estate developers have gradually transformed this part of Seattle into an arcadia of high-priced condominiums and increasingly characterless diversions for tourists. The city seems to have feared that the proposal to turn Pier 62/63 into a site of informed recreation risked too permanent an appeal to too diversified a public.16

Now that a shed that was to embody history has fallen victim to it, Kruger, Henry Smith-Miller, and Laurie Hawkinson have had to content themselves with the addition of a mere necklace of text. The pier is currently bordered on three sides by a three-foot-high chain-link fence on which red letters pose questions that assume special significance under these circumstances: “Who makes history?” “Who is bought and sold?” “What disappears?” “What remains?” “Who decides?” “Who does the crime?” “Who does the time?” “Who is beyond the law?” “Who controls who?”

The first of Kruger’s collaborations with Smith-Miller and Hawkinson, aided by the landscape architect Nicholas Quennell, was in an open competition to design a 164-acre park around the North Carolina Museum of Art, in Raleigh. Their proposal, entitled “Imperfect Utopia,” was approved by the museum board in September 1988. Although delays have abounded (this is state-owned property), work on the first of three phases intended to extend over ten years may soon begin in earnest.

The “theory,” or “guiding principals,” of Kruger’s architectural collaborations, as expressed in the team’s proposal for the park, are as follows:

To disperse the univocality of a “Master Plan” into an aerosol
of imaginary conversations and inclusionary tactics.

To brine in rather than leave out.
To make signs.
To re-naturalize.
To question the priorities of style and taste.
To anticipate change and invite alteration.
To construct a cycle of repair and discovery.
To question the limitations of vocation.
To be brought down to earth.
To make the permanent temporary.
To see the forest for the trees.
To have no end in sight.

If Kruger were to write a description of the goals of all her work, it might very well read like this. In architectural terms, in both Raleigh and a later project in Los Angeles it entails countering the decimation of the landscape in an ecologically sound manner that is informed by historical analysis. It also involves a flexible zoning method, appropriating a concept of spatial use more characteristic of suburban development than of park design. Zoning in this case guarantees areas for “active” and “passive culture.” It acknowledges the special environmental needs of certain areas, and ensures the existence of institutional support facilities. Zoning of this kind promotes a variety of amenities, and a porous, or ragged, rather than strictly defined demarcation of the park’s geographical limits.

In Raleigh the site will eventually contain a parking area sheltered under a canopy of trees, an arbor by an existing pond near the museum, and an outdoor theater nearby. A sculpture garden will be sunken to avoid the aggressive imposition of modern sculpture on the terrain. Residences and studios for visiting artists and designers will be situated by existing suburban houses near the park’s outer edge, ensuring a sense of permeability between the park and its surroundings. Finally, the grounds will include an arboretum, and existing forest will be renewed. A network of paths will link the park’s different regions, and vernacular signage will inform visitors as to their history. This signage will introduce diverse, and welcome, incursions of “culture” into the park’s “nature.” The decision to encompass, rather than exclude, the suburban housing—as well as a juvenile detention center—on the site is another manifestation of the effort to be inclusive, and to avoid using a recreational facility to mask past and present social realities.

In ways like these, the team has tried to organize space, yet leave it open; to encourage a diversity of recreational pleasures and options; to “re-naturalize” without creating a false utopia. As to such theoretical goals as questioning “the priorities of style and taste,” bringing in rather than leaving out, and dispersing the “univocality of a Master Plan,” these were realized with more daring when the same team turned in the spring of 1989 to their Los Angeles project. To a call for proposals to fulfill the promise of an existing master plan, they responded largely by criticizing that plan. They knew, then, that their chances of winning the competition were not great. Nevertheless, they thought through the proposal with every hope and intention of seeing it built.

The original master plan for ARTS PARK LA, a 60-acre site in the Sepulveda Dam Basin of the San Fernando Valley, called for a natural history museum, a media center, an arts center (to house traveling exhibitions, artists’ studio space, workshops, and so on), a children’s center, a “food pavilion,” outdoor performance spaces, a performing-arts pavilion, and parking. It also specified that these facilities should be “dispersed” throughout the site “to avoid the concentration of mass in any one locale.” Landscaping was to be “as natural as possible.”17

To these guidelines Kruger, Smith-Miller, Hawkinson, and Quennel responded with “Un-Occupied Territory: An Economic Ecology,” a plan that concentrated all its buildings within a tiny fraction of the available land. For the bulk of the park’s acreage—among the last to remain unoccupied in the San Fernando Valley—lies in the midst of a 100-year-flood plain that they thought it wise to leave unbuilt. To the call for an “Arts Park Center” with exhibition spaces, restaurants, and artists’ studios, they responded with a building called “The Mall.” An expandable open shed, the Mall contains "The Showroom”—an exhibition space designed for the sorts of pleasures one associates with shopping in a well-stocked, well-designed supermarket. In addition, the Mall would contain not only the restaurants and studios prescribed by the master plan, but the children’s center and the performing-arts pavilion as well.

Further deviating from the plan, the team responded to the request for a natural history museum with a proposal for a subterranean “Museum of Un-Natural History,” to be located beneath a parking lot that at night would double as a drive-in movie theater. Puzzled by the stipulation that ARTS PARK should duplicate an existing local facility (Los Angeles’ Natural History Museum, in Exposition Park), the team also wanted to find as many ways as possible to overturn the plan’s tacit reinforcement of the hierarchical distinctions between art and popular culture. The Museum of Un-Natural History is designed as a subterranean, outwardly spiraling rectangle that can expand as unnatural—cultural—history develops. Combining a “wildly didactic clarity with the fun-loving promises of the spectacle,” the museum would focus on the productive and reproductive powers of popular culture by investigating film and television technologies, automotive design, freeways, dream houses,supermarket structures, pop music, and popular narratives. Because of the potentially inexhaustible diversity of its contents, this institution would effectively deconstruct conventional museological systems of classification by creating new ones that would mock the traditional, categorical assignments of cultural worth.

Kruger and her colleagues dealt with the rest of the site in the same spirit of historically and ecologically informed sensitivity that they applied to their scheme for North Carolina. They divided it into “cultivated” and “natural” sectors, the former on the higher ground above the flood plain. This sector would include groves of trees, a hydroponic garden, floating gardens on an existing (man-made) lake, and fields for a variety of crops, to be consumed elsewhere in the park. The “natural” sector, which would also be managed for botanical diversity and interest, would be encouraged to revert back to its natural condition as a chaparral.

This proposal challenged the master plan for ARTS PARK by foregrounding the very aspects of Los Angeles’ cultural reality that the original plan had obscured. Principal among these is the city’s diversity. For Kruger, working on the project was a unique opportunity to reflect on the character of a place for which she had always had a soft spot. In scrutinizing Los Angeles—which supporters and detractors alike describe (though for opposite reasons) as the model of the 21st-century city—she found reason for cautious optimism, reasons that correspond, curiously, with many aspects of the redefined “culture” she has attempted to realize throughout her practice. Los Angeles, the great leveler, is to Kruger also a city that has had little choice but to make room for difference.

In the list of theoretical goals that Kruger and her colleagues articulated for the North Carolina project, one stands out here: “To question the limitations of vocation.” The diversity of Kruger’s work—its materialization not only as unique art objects but as artists’ books, postcards, T-shirts, posters, billboards, book covers and illustrations, shopping bags, film and TV criticism, and, most recently, architectural collaboration—has helped ensure that her practice will retain its critical edge. Speaking about the recuperative powers of myth today, Roland Barthes discussed the way in which denomination can function as disavowal: through naming, “Otherness is reduced to sameness.”18 Kruger’s refusal to take comfort in a stable professional identity has done as much to protect her art from the hazards of her success as any other aspect of what she does. Is she just an artist? just a feminist? a writer? designer? critic? architect? Reduction of difference to sameness, reduction of difference to binary oppositions: Kruger’s continuous refusal to make peace with such logic in a society that cannot live without it has ensured the continuing importance of her practice as a model of resistance to arrest.

David Deitcher, a New York-based writer, is teaching this spring at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia.


1. Andy Grundberg, “The Mellowing of the Post-Modernists,” The New York Times, 17 December 1989, p. 45. The Museum of Modern Art’s recent “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” exhibition employed completely different means to achieve a similar devaluation: curators Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik simply omitted such art from their exhibition altogether. In the catalogue, however, Gopnik subjected post-Modernist art to a canny misrepresentation, the results of which actually warranted the ridicule he heaped upon them. In this critical mugging no artist fared worse than Barbara Kruger.

2. Sherrie Levine, for example, did so by introducing watercolor, drawing, and painting into her mature production, in 1984. However, she was able to preserve the critique of patriarchal Modernism that in part motivated her early appropriations. Others found ways to augment the “production value” of their work (increased scale, limited editions, elaborate framing systems), resulting in objects that would function more effectively as art-world commodities.

3. It was at this time, in 1986, that AIDS activist groups like the Silence=Death Project and, later, Gran Fury found urgent uses for such strategies as appropriation. The Silence=Death Project’s now familiar pink-triangle logo was designed just before the formation of ACT UP in 1987, at which time it made its first appearance on walls in downtown Manhattan. See Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston, Aids Demographics, Seattle: Bay Press, 1990.

4. Kruger, quoted in Carol Squiers, “Diversionary (Syn)tactics: Barbara Kruger Has Her Way with Words,” Artnews 86 no. 2, February 1987, p. 79.

5. Kruger, quoted in “Strategies of Public Address: Which Media, Which Publics?,” in Hal Foster, ed., Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Seattle: Bay Press, 1987, p. 52. Kruger also said, “I wanted [my work] to enter the marketplace because I began to understand that outside the market there is nothing—not a piece of lint, a cardigan, a coffee table, a human being.” Quoted in Squiers, p. 84.

6. As Gopnik writes, “However sympathetic you might have been to the political position that underlay this work, and however much you might have shared its disgust with a disposable culture of manufactured lies, it was still hard for many people to see how Kruger’s strategies and methods differed from those of advertising itself.” In Varnedoe and Gopnik, High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1990, p. 390.

7. See Kate Linker, Love for Sale: The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990, p. 29.

8. “The Decade Show” took place at the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, in the summer of 1990. For a detailed discussion of Kruger’s ads for the Whitney’s “Image World,” see my “When Worlds Collide,” Art in America 78 no. 2, February 1990, p. 121.

9. “The social relations of production have a social existence only insofar as they exist spatially; they project themselves into space, they inscribe themselves in a space while producing it.” Henri Lefebvre, quoted in Edward W. Soja, “The Spatiality of Social Life: Towards a Transformative Retheorization,” in Derek Gregory and John Urry, eds., Social Relations and Spatial Structures, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985, pp. 94-95. Soja also writes: “Concrete spatiality is thus a competitive arena for both social production and reproduction, for social practices aimed either at maintenance and reinforcement of existing spatiality or at significant restructuring and possible transformation” (p. 99).

10. See Ben Bagdikian, “Cornering Hearts and Minds: The Lords of the Global Village,” The Nation 248 no. 23, 12 June 1989, pp. 805-820.

11. As Lefebvre postulated some twenty years ago, capitalist economies utilize space to produce surplus value. As such, space itself becomes both a means of production and an object of consumption; both a repressive political instrument and the site of cultural and political struggle. See Lefebvre, “Space: Social Product and Use Value,” in J. W. Freigberg, ed., Critical Sociology: European Perspectives, New York: Irvington Publishers, 1979, pp. 285-95.

12. “The ideas that art cannot assume the preexistence of a public but must help produce one and that the public sphere is more than a physical space nullify, to a considerable extent, accepted divisions between public and nonpublic art. Potentially, any exhibition venue is a public sphere and, conversely, the location of artworks outside privately owned galleries, in parks and plazas or, simply, outdoors, hardly guarantees that they will constitute a public.” Rosalyn Deutsche, “Uneven Development: Public Art in New York City,” October 47, Winter 1988, p. 12.

13. In the Santa Monica show; Kruger accompanied the floor text with eight modestly scaled, shallow magnesium reliefs. Each plaque contained one of her now familiar questions: “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?”

14. A slightly later series, “Picture/Readings,” 1978, deals with similar issues, and is more familiar, since it was published as an inexpensive artist’s book, and has figured in exhibitions. It juxtaposes photographs that Kruger took of suggestive details from the domestic architecture around Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Florida with narrative fragments imagining the lives of those who live inside.

15. The artist Stephen Prina, upon seeing Kruger’s installation, referred to it as “the bloodbath in Cologne” in a conversation with the artist.

16. That members of the Park, Department harbored such a fear was evident to a number of those who attended a meeting concerning Pier 62/63 in September 1989. At the meeting were representatives of the Denny Regrade Community Council, Allied Arts, the League of Women Voters, the Waterfront Task Force, and the Downtown Seattle Association, as well as local historians, the design team, and several department heads from the city, including Holly Miller of the Parks Department. Following this meeting, the Parks Department announced that it would cancel any version of the project that retained the shed, and vetoed any further community meetings.

17. “ARTS PARK LA Design Competition Master Plan—1/20/89,” pp. 2–4.

18. Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p. 151.