In 1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Kathleen McCarthy Gauss organized a series of exhibitions exploring new ways in which photography was being deployed in art. Among the seven featured artists was a former Mademoiselle magazine graphic designer who had landed in Los Angeles at the end of the previous decade for a teaching gig. That artist was Barbara Kruger and the series, “New American Photography,” was significant for her — one of her earliest solo museum presentations.
In those days, Kruger was producing small-scale pieces that, in form and technique, borrowed from her graphic designer career. Her paste-ups — a term from the language of magazine layouts in the days before desktop publishing — consisted of found images over which hovered words and fragments of texts, often in a punchy sans serif font.
“HOW COME ONLY THE UNBORN HAVE THE RIGHT TO LIFE?” demands a text placed over a negative image of a child’s face. Another piece from the mid-1980s shows a canine’s snarling teeth and the deadpan line, “Business as usual.”
At the tail end of 1985, the catalog for “New American Photography” was reviewed by Bob Nandell, a critic for the Des Moines Register. “Some of her photographs … give subtle messages,” he wrote, “Others, like the photograph of words printed over an image of a nuclear-bomb blast, swat the viewer in the eye.”
Almost four decades after that key exhibition, Kruger is back at LACMA — and it’s hard to know what Nandell would make of it. Because Kruger doesn’t merely swat. She demands. She cajoles. She seduces. She commands. She implicates. OFTEN IN ALL-CAPS. And at an architectonic scale.
To be in some of her room-sized installations is to feel overwhelmed by the physical and figurative power of words. “YOU.” begins one work titled “Untitled (Forever),” from 2007. “YOU KNOW THAT WOMEN HAVE SERVED ALL THESE CENTURIES AS LOOKING GLASSES POSSESSING THE MAGIC AND DELICIOUS POWER OF REFLECTING THE FIGURE OF MAN AT TWICE ITS NATURAL SIZE.”
It’s a work that inverts the historic male gaze of the museum, and beams it right back at the viewer — in assertive black-and-white type delivered at the scale of a gallery wall.
The most comprehensive presentation of the artist’s work to date, “Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,” is at LACMA into July. The show’s official title features the first “you” and “me” crossed out, as if the viewer is stuck in an unseen narrator’s uncertain thought loop (a presentation that eludes The Times’ content management system). Concurrent to that exhibition is a show of Kruger’s early paste-ups, as well as a recent work at Sprüth Magers, one of the galleries that represents her — conveniently located across the street from LACMA.
For the artist, the show at LACMA is a homecoming of sorts. “I have a real history here,” she says. “The institutional support that I have gotten in Los Angeles has often prefaced anything I got anywhere else.” (She was also the subject of a midcareer survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 1999.)
The LACMA exhibition looks back as much as it looks forward, presenting some of the iconographic pieces for which the artist is known. This includes 1989’s “Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground),” which shows a woman’s face split in two, the halves of her body represented in positive and negative image. (A piece that couldn’t be more on point at a moment of anti-trans legislative pushes and the Republican assault on Roe vs. Wade.)
It also shows the artist toying with her own legacy. The exhibit’s first room is a meta exploration of her 1987 piece, “Untitled (I shop therefore I am),” which has been relentlessly adapted and appropriated over the decades. In her installation, Kruger appropriates the appropriators. Other works, once static in nature, have been reinvented as animations.
In content, Kruger’s work deals with the very issues simmering in U.S. politics today: sex, power, race, mass media and a woman’s right to govern her own body. “I’m trying to broadly address what it means to be alive on this planet,” she says. “Not in a diaristic, literal form, but in the way that all work shows moments of what life is like.”
The moment is a difficult one, redolent of cynicism and division. “It would be kind of good,” says Kruger, “if my work became archaic.”
Over lunch at Ray’s at LACMA on a sunny weekday, Kruger talked about her work and the early magazine gigs that helped shape it. In this conversation, which has been edited for clarity, she discusses why she likes to reimagine old works, where she spends her time on the internet and her upcoming foray into the world of dance.
The show contains what you describe as “replays” — animated reconceptualizations of works that were previously static images. Why revisit your work in this way?
It’s about erasing and re-creating. We live in such a remix culture. What digital culture has done is so extraordinary in so many liberatory and mesmeratory ways — and so many punishing and brutal and shaming ways, for sure. It was a statement in the first room of the show.
As I’ve said before, I really never expected people to know my name or my work. The fact that things have played out this way is amazingly pleasing and also ironic. I view it with pleasure and wariness. I wanted to take those things and incorporate them. I wanted more moving images in the work. I wanted to take the idea of editing and change.
“Pledge,” “Will” and “Vow,” I’d made them originally as vinyl works. With the video [in which words appear and disappear], I really wanted to comment on what these things mean in terms of patriotism and love and marriage, but also death — giving a sense of the flimsiness and vulnerability of life.
You’ve talked about how video has created additional “performative and spectatorial aspects” to our lives. How has that infused your work?
Direct address has always been the motor of my work, whether it’s still or moving. Watching the screen — we live in such a screen culture — it’s a direct address culture, if it’s YouTube or Zoom, and besides that, TikTok. These short things, these episodic things. All my videos have been episodic. I think that comes from my history as a magazine designer. And I’ve always had a short attention span.
I include myself. It’s “I shop therefore I am.”
You have installations that speak to the internet and social media. What platforms and posts are grabbing your attention these days?
I’m not on social media. Though I go to various sites, of course. I subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, but I also look at a lot of websites — ideologically intense websites. I have spent a lot of time on Stormfront [a neo-Nazi site that has since gone offline] and 4chan [the online forum where users can post anonymously].
A huge percentage of the American population is driven by grievance and fear, and they found their man [Donald Trump] and there will be others like him. He was just a better salesman than anyone. Every time I hear people say they are shocked, I’m like … [shakes head]. It’s that failure of imagination that has led us to today. None of this was a surprise.
I only wish that the middle and left learned from this. Many of them have not mastered the polemical ease with which to speak and convince. You have to be performative for people to hear what you have to say. There are some exceptions to that. [Georgia gubernatorial candidate] Stacey Abrams, she is amazing. But I don’t want to look at another picture of [Senate Majority Leader Charles E.] Schumer with his head down reading.
These should be moments of passion — and they’re reading?
As The Times’ Christopher Knight pointed out in his review, some of the fonts you use have interesting histories — such as Futura, by a German designer who was later persecuted by the Nazis. How do you choose your fonts? And do their histories play a role?
I knew nothing about the history when I started doing this work. I was working at Mademoiselle. I was quite young and had a year and a half of art school. It’s interesting when people look at my early photo work and they see the red frame and they’re like, Constructivism. I didn’t know what Constructivism was. People talked about John Heartfield [a 20th century German artist who was a pioneer in the use of photomontage]. I was unaware of it. I was basically doing paste-ups and watching photos come in.
What was working at Mademoiselle in the 1960s like?
The editor in chief was always a woman, but the higher-ups were always men. I worked there when Condé Nast’s offices [Mademoiselle’s parent company] were on Lexington Avenue. At that point, in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s, women — white women — whose parents could afford to send them to college (they went to Seven Sisters), those women could not get jobs — real jobs. They were still making coffee for “Mad Men” types.
But Condé Nast became this vessel that employed these women as editors in chief and as managing editors. They had their own subculture. It really was a place where these college-educated white women could be professionalized. There was nurse or there was teacher. What else could women do?
I think I started in ’67 or ’68. I was full-time in those beginning years. Then I was a freelance picture editor — that was at House & Garden. That allowed me to indulge my love of architecture. I’m living in my little apartment and I’m looking at these photographs of people serving food in these incredible houses in the Hamptons.
In your architectonic installations, you’ve described yourself as a choreographer who arranges images and text in space. Are you trying to create a choreography with your space?
I would say there is definitely some structure, but I would think that everybody will navigate that dance differently. Even the direct address — some people will engage it; others, nuh-uh. I’ve engaged the floor and looking up for a long time. That was a real breakthrough.
This is why my benches are part of the design of the show. I want you to spend eight minutes with it. And there are no light blocks — that curtain in a gallery. So people can walk in and see it and be a part of it.
Have you ever worked with dancers?
I have — and I will be doing it again. I did a project with [choreographer] Benjamin Millepied — “Reflections,” which was based on “Rubies,” part of [George] Balanchine’s “Jewels” trilogy. At the time, Benjamin had already started L.A. Dance Project and he was working with the Paris Opera.
I did the sets. It was so thrilling. We started working together when his rehearsals had just started and it was great to be part of the dance. It was a real conversation. It wasn’t just me doing a set. And his dancers are so fabulous. We’re going to be working on something again together — I don’t know the date yet.
Your work subverts advertising and consumerism, yet your work has also been merchandised as object. How do you feel about that?
I suspected that would happen from the very beginning and I started doing that years ago. I did T-shirts with Planned Parenthood and NARAL, as well as arts organizations. When I did it with a commercial vehicle, I’d take the proceeds and it would go into something cultural. It makes OK sense to me. I don’t feel defiled by it. I don’t live on Planet Debbie. This is the world.
“Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I mean Me. I Mean You.”
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through July 17
Where: Sprüth Magers, 5900 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through July 16