New York

Barbara Kruger

If ever there were a time to reflect on the recent past of a present moment, this would seem to be it. With its many uncanny parallels to and, perhaps in retrospect, prescient harbingers for our day, the ’80s—that messy, sprawling decade, which seemed to begin sometime in the 1970s and arguably maintained force well into the early 1990s—holds a certain kind of fascination for many of us today. Indeed, the seeds of our current situation (economic, political, and specifically for this context, artistic) were sowed during those years when Reagan took office, the AIDS crisis hit, and the stock market crashed.

It’s fitting, then, that a number of large-scale museum exhibitions of late have returned or will return to the ’80s (for instance “The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984,” which opened this spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), marking it as historic terrain, if not securely so. But smaller ventures dedicated to the task of considering the import of works produced by artists during the ’80s are also cropping up, offering more in-depth accounts of particular practices. One such exhibition is Barbara Kruger’s recent “Pre-Digital 1980–1992” at Skarstedt Gallery. What initially appears to be an arrangement of older, small-scale works turns out to be a richly layered treasure trove, culled from the archive and gathered together for the first—and perhaps last—time.

Although the objects on view were for all intents and purposes hung as proper “artworks,” they are more properly “pasteups,” those cut-and-glued handmade affairs so familiar to editorial designers of yesteryear. That Kruger herself worked at a number of popular mainstream magazines, honing the skills that she would appropriate for more subversive means, is now the stuff of myth, but rarely has the tactile evidence—the way borrowed image and constructed text are literally brought together; the roughshod entanglement of incompatible signs; the DIY elegance—been so accessible. These small specimens, most no larger than a sheet of typing paper, are at once utterly familiar and totally alien. Though a significant number of them are immediately recognizable as iconic Kruger images (Untitled [Your gaze hits the side of my face], 1981, for so many of us a long-dear feminist exercise in semiotics, for instance), there are others that I found myself wondering if I’d really seen before or if Kruger’s operations in the cracks of the familiar just made me think so (Untitled [Surveillance is their busywork] from 1988, with its monocled man and stridently paranoiac language, is just one example that elicits such déjà vu).

If, then, a return to Kruger’s “predigital” maneuvers gave us the chance to see her work anew, the opportunity was also there to consider the implications of a practice that has continued to grow over decades of change while maintaining a number of core concerns. That Kruger’s oeuvre has its own “look” is clear, but how that look has adapted itself subtly over time is less discussed. Kruger’s decision to release these early “pasteups,” whose images until now have been accessible only through the “works” they came to be (after having been photographed fit to various contexts), is at once touching and strangely elegiac. It is as though in letting them become objects in their own right, the artist acknowledges that something of their initial use value has irrevocably changed. Their messages and pointedly politically address, however, seem to be very much in keeping with the present.

Johanna Burton

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