Hostile Witness


We’re all timepieces; some of us are just more timely than others. Is Barbara Kruger, whose flashy, jarring, bellicose retrospective is now on view at the Whitney, only yesterday’s artist, or can her warlike work still be heard today?

Heard is the operative word, for no one spoke louder or carried a more vengeful stick from one end of the 1980s to the other than Kruger. It’s hard to imagine a time less like Kruger’s than ours. Her art cross-examined our relationship to desire, race, gender games, and consumerism. Now we’re all shoppers. At the Whitney, amid an installation that is part big top, part revival meeting, and part walk-in pinball machine, I felt any ironic reference to Descartes waft away when I overheard a twentysomething man say, “I don’t get it,” as he looked at Kruger’s emblematic work declaring, “I Shop Therefore I Am.” His girlfriend added, “She seems so angry.”

Well, angry is one word for it. Others include incredulous, incendiary, and unequivocal. The ultimate hostile witness and grand inquisitor, Kruger is the crossover artist par excellence. Your parents know her style even if they don’t know who invented it. Kruger did covers for Newsweek and Esquire; her work appeared in The New York Times op-ed pages; she designed shopping bags, billboards, coffee cups, and bus posters, and was ripped off by countless graphic designers without protest. She did what artists are always saying they want to do: She brought her art to the world and to the street.

But maybe you just can’t go home again. Having had all this influence “out there,” Kruger’s been at a loss about what to do with her art for the last five years or so. Her graphic style, in place by 1981, hasn’t shown much development. She’s turned to Nauman-esque talking heads, and her texts are now being spoken by actors on videotape or by audio voice-overs. So is Kruger more social critic and graphic designer than artist?

Pardon me, but what the fuck does it matter? Kruger cut through the bullshit. She completely nailed the potential of her art, and made it absolutely clear that she was at war with bias. She was critical but not negative, opened up a wide aesthetic swath, and created something so forceful and indelible it could be called the Kruger Effect. It’s everywhere. What more do you want from an artist? That’s why it’s smug and supercilious to say Kruger’s art is just “advertising,” or that she’s only preaching to the converted. Ask women artists and artists of color if they think the art world has been converted. And if Kruger is nothing but a political artist, I guess that makes Bob Dylan one, too.

Kruger may be the Robert Oppenheimer of postconceptualism. She initiated her own private Manhattan Project in the late ’70s, when, as a lapsed painter and practicing pictures editor at Mademoiselle, she took a radical step. Kruger combined the volatile, free-floating atoms of conceptual art, photojournalism, text, and graphic design, borrowed from John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, and added liberal doses of feminism, disappointment, and sarcasm. The resulting mixture was so radioactive you could almost hear her echo Oppenheimer’s famous words as she released her work on an unsuspecting world: “I am become death.”

The effect was like a big bug splatting on a windshield at high speed. In this shocking, simple way, Kruger fused image and text into a high-powered whole. Not only is Kruger’s black-and-white-and-red format instantly recognizable, the words we, our, and your belong to her the way fluorescent fixtures belong to Flavin and crushed cars do to Chamberlain. I spent part of the ’80s fearful that I was one of the yous she was addressing. Now I often have students compose Krugerisms to illustrate how effective her method is. Some I remember are “We won’t play Lord of your Flies,” “Your ace isn’t in our hole,” “I am your kiss of death,” and “We won’t put our eggs in your basket.”

Without her, artists as disparate as Sue Williams, Lorna Simpson, and Sarah Lucas mightn’t have happened. Maybe even Jeff Koons’s will to power owes a little something to Kruger’s. In light of how completely she occupies the commanding, authoritative voice of the patriarch, Matisse’s laudatory words about Chardin fit Kruger to a tee: She’s “the father of us all.”

Which may be what freaks some people out. These days, Kruger’s Swiftian rants strike some as “ridiculous,” “embarrassing,” or “overwrought.” But isn’t that like saying she’s hysterical? Unfortunately, the Oppenheimer comparison plays itself out as farce with Kruger; the same way he was suspended as a “security risk,” Kruger’s critics label her as “over.” In America, nothing fails like success.

My advice is forget about the decade stuff and the labels. Let Kruger’s accomplishments speak for themselves; allow her work to overtake you. Kruger’s done what Patti Smith boasted: “i haven’t fucked much with the past, but i’ve fucked plenty with the future.” Or, look at it this way: In four months, we could elect another Bush as president. If so, who you gonna call?