New York

Barbara Kruger

Mary Boone Gallery/Deitch Projects

Don’t you hate it when the Times slams an artist you like? Not that you’re surprised, probably, when that artist is Barbara Kruger. The Deitch installation was her second in New York to literalize the experience of being shouted at, and if the last one, in 1994, was panned—and it was—the response was predictable this time. The review, however, was so utterly dismissive that you had the feeling of an opportunity being seized, or at least of the eruption of a desire that critics may periodically feel hut that (with the exception of Hilton Kramer) they usually opt to repress: the impulse to go for it, refusing a gentlemanly “Better luck next time” and implying instead that work like this should never have existed.

The formal genre of Kruger’s piece for Deitch—technologically sophisticated video installation in which people yell at you—has been explored, of course, by others. The notable figure, as the Times remarked, would be Bruce Nauman, who has long, and deservedly, been far too sacred a cow for his work to be wished out of the world. You would think that could open doors for Kruger—not that she needs them; she has laurels of her own to rest on. Perhaps all the more reason, then, to use Nauman not as a marker but as a bludgeon: The girl doesn’t do this as well as the guy who got there first!

Video installation is a relatively youthful medium; maybe if its vocabulary were more established, more naturalized and familiar, the issue would have to be what was done with it rather than the fact of its presence. No movie critic, after all, would write, “Montage? Been done, by D.W. Griffith,” as if all later film-editing were parasitic. Although viewers of film and video installation today may often remember Nauman, other artists arc using this language in original ways—and Kruger’s installation, Power Pleasure Desire Disgust, was unmistakably her own.

Paradoxically for an artist who wants her work widely seen, Kruger designed a space in which steadily changing text projected on walls and floor, plus loudly amplified wall-size talking heads, seemed at first to repeat one message: You inadequate piece of dirt. Resisting or resenting the boot-camp experience, some folk surely fled—a pity, because attention paid was rewarded. Kruger is a formidable writer (I speak as her onetime Artforum editor), and her texts were subtly nuanced: disgust was a powerful current here, but power, pleasure, and desire definitely featured too, and as you listened, the personal histories you imagined behind the words seemed increasingly various. Performed by men and women of differing ages and skin colors, this was a panoramic social scan, suggesting a range of relationships—sex, friendship, family, work, and between races. The texts were also articulated with enormous skill, linked as brief solo playlets as the speakers came and went, in a tense flux matched by the images on-screen. And the emotional tone was wide, generally a matter of hitter contempt but running also to wit, flirtatiousness, and regret. “I’m sorry,” a woman might say, “I’m just upset.” But then: “Why? You don’t know why?!!@!”

Though devoid of sound, light, and abuse, the uptown show at Boone also had a first impression to overcome. It opened with three lacquered-fiberglass sculptures—J. Edgar Hoover kissing a high-heeled and skirted Roy Cohn, say, on a pedestal inscribed “Justice.” (Therewas also a chapel of large-scale wall pieces, photo-textworks in Kruger’s trademark style.) Not only did these evoke Jeff Koons considerably more than the downtown show did Nauman, their surfaces were uninvolving and their points quickly graspable. I think, though, that they were miscast as gallery work. Kruger had arranged for a Transit Authority bus plastered with aphorisms and quotes to travel the city during her shows; the sculptures, I think, would have benefited from being seen like the bus, or maybe from the bus—unexpectedly and in passing, along a street or in a park. With their prominent daises and their takes on national figures, they addressed the tradition of public sculpture, and would have been altogether more alive, and controversial, in a public place. Kruger has said she creates for short attention spans; gallery-type contemplation did not serve these works well.

The downtown show, conversely, needed time to digest. Its impact was partly sensual: somehow the glow of lettering and video did not diffuse in this cavernous warehouse space (around the corner from Deitch proper), and the crisp effects of dark and light were interestingly grand and churchlike, or perhaps, given the sound and the light’s flow, more like that modern semireligious gathering place, the discotheque. (Hey! Disco text! Now there’s an idea.) Meanwhile the piece had a lot to say about everyday American life. Kruger’s habitual use of the second person—the word “you”—is famously divisive: Do you identify with the speaker, and think of the addressee as some other guy, or do you feel pinned and accused? Perhaps in the present case the division reflected the degree of the viewer’s sensitivity to various basic uglinesses in daily American experience. In this respect, each of the several times I visited the downtown show, it was full of people.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.