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She Has a Way With Words

COVER STORY

A MOCA retrospective of Barbara Kruger's work asks provocative questions about how we communicate.

October 17, 1999|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A decade ago, Barbara Kruger scandalized the Japanese American community of Little Tokyo with her proposal to paint the Pledge of Allegiance, bordered by provocative questions, on the side of a warehouse in the heart of the historic downtown neighborhood. That the warehouse was and still is occupied by the Museum of Contemporary Art, known at the time as the Temporary Contemporary, did little to assuage the feelings of those in the community who remembered all too well having to recite the pledge while interred at Manzanar and other wartime camps. To them, Kruger's concept was an affront.

A year of community meetings ensued, and the artist listened and negotiated. In the end, she offered to eliminate the pledge from her mural proposal, while still retaining a series of questions painted in the colors and format of the American flag: "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?" The piece remained on the wall without incident for two years, from 1990 to 1992.

Today, the first major retrospective of her career opens in that same warehouse (which has since been renamed for David Geffen), with two decades of art displayed throughout the museum. As Kruger, 54, prepared for the show, she recalled that earlier experience.

"Everything we do in life involves social relations," she said reflectively. "I'm not the kind of person who says, 'This is my inspiration and if you mess with it, you are denigrating it.' I was lucky that it happened at all. I can't think of any other town where that could happen on such a large scale."

Such generosity of spirit might come as a surprise to many who have followed Kruger's career since she became famous in the 1980s for her bold, confrontational works of art. Some of her most memorable work has consisted of large-scale montages of cropped black-and-white photographs emblazoned with trenchant texts such as, "When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook." Or "Your moments of joy have the precision of military strategy." Or "Promise anything but give us nothing."

Neither Kruger nor her art are what they might first appear. Born to the working class and yet by now a celebrated insider in the elitist art world, Kruger is a media-savvy professional who knows how to dodge questions about her life.

She is also a charismatic, engaging woman who likes to ask as many questions as she answers. The complexity and even the subtlety of Kruger's sensibility--and her desire to communicate--come to light in this survey of approximately 70 pieces, which emphasizes room-sized installations from the last decade, as well as videos, sculptures, photographs, prints, books, T-shirts and knickknacks.

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A bustle of urban energy under an impressive mop of frosty, curly hair, Kruger wears all black to conduct a tour of her retrospective. Although her work often is lumped together with the theory-driven art of the '80s, she takes pains to assert that she and her work are "more hot than cool."

"My work is pretty accessible to viewers, which doesn't make it any less complicated," Kruger notes. "The coolest thing is to be able to take complicated ideas and communicate them in a simple language. Hopefully, I've done that."

For 20 years, Kruger's work has been praised by critics, featured on magazine covers, taught at universities, represented by top art galleries, bought by major collectors and, in 1990, immortalized in a monograph titled "Love for Sale." She is also a writer, known for stylish essays in publications ranging from the New York Times to Artforum, and that work has been collected in a book called "Remote Control." Yet Kruger was overlooked as many of her '80s art-star friends and peers--Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Richard Prince, Julian Schnabel--were given one or more museum retrospectives, a distinction that helps to ensure an artist's place in the history books. Until now, the larger museums resisted surveying what has been called her "theater of dissent."

The current show is organized by MOCA curator Ann Goldstein, who spent five years on what is certain to prove a controversial exhibition. Known for her allegiance to Conceptual art, Goldstein defends in advance the decision to do the show now.

"Although there is a lot of negativity toward the '80s, and [Kruger] is associated with that decade, one must remember that it was an incredibly productive decade driven by a number of women artists. She was one of the first women to address representation and show that pictures and words have determined how we are defined and confined."

In terms of getting her moment, Kruger does not feel the latecomer, saying that the timing is "perfect." With a what-me-worry shrug, she says, "I want to be as effective as possible. I'm not convinced that to be effective is to fill a white room every year."

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