Barbara Kruger: Currency of Language

©Barbara Kruger. "Untitled" (Your body is a battleground), 1989.


ANDREA BLANCH: You seemed uneasy about being included in our “Controversy” issue. Is there something you don’t like about the word “controversial,” or being labelled as such?


BARBARA KRUGER: I am wary of categories. I’m not sure what that word “controversy” means. It has different meanings in different contexts. One person’s controversy is another person’s melatonin.


AB: Speaking of labels, your work gets different labels from critics. “Appropriation art”, “conceptual art”, etc. Do you have any issues with these labels? How might you describe the work you do?


BK: Again, the labelling is usually a journalistic device. Unfortunately, it can be a lazy device. It can narrow the possibility of what meaning can be made. It puts you in a box. It’s not really about appropriation. I’ve never used that word. Labelling is not productive as far as I’m concerned.


Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 1.52.20 PM©Barbara Kruger. "Untitled" (Not Ugly Enough), 1997.


AB: How did you get to do what you do?


BK: I started at a young age working at magazines. I have no undergraduate or graduate degrees. I developed this fluency in terms of engaging photography and text on a page. If you didn’t get people to look at the page, you were fired. In a way, my job as an editorial designer morphed, with many alterations, into my work as an artist.


AB: So you didn’t start out thinking you were going to be an artist, you started off in a commercial venue?


BK: The idea of being an “artist” artist was so distant to me. I was one of the kids in elementary school who could draw. Skill in drawing doesn’t necessarily make you an artist, what with the invention of photography and other ways of replicating. At that time, it seemed the art world was twelve white guys in Lower Manhattan. The idea of being a young woman making art, there were so few models for that. When I started working at magazines, in the very beginning I wanted to be art director of the world. That lasted for about five months. I realized I just didn’t have the ability to create so many other people’s images of perfection. I think the difference between being a so-called “artist” and a so-called “designer” is the client relationship. As a designer, you have to have a very broad creative “range”, because you have to deal with so many other people’s’ preferences and wishes. As an artist, your job is to define yourself someway through your work. The limitations you’re fighting against are not some other person’s, they’re your own.


AB: What happened that led you to pursue art? Did you just wake up one day and say, “OK”, or did Mary Boone discover you?


BK: Mary actually came much later. At first, I was doing work using fabric and stitching. The problem was that I felt I was putting myself to sleep with that work. It was a repetitive procedure that just didn’t work for me, so I had to figure out what it meant to call myself an artist. I’d taken a few visiting teaching jobs, living in different towns for six months a piece, doing a lot of reading, and trying to figure out what I could do that would engage me. Ironically, I came to rely on the skill I had developed working in magazines. I tried to figure out how to make that my own. I had shows at Franklin Furnace, Artist Base, and at PS1 of early photo-text work. Larry Gagosian was my first dealer. I did two Los Angeles shows with him in ‘81 and ‘82. Through Larry I met Annina Nosei, a New York dealer who I had my first New York show with. About four years later, I showed with Mary. Before that, I had met Monika Sprüth in Germany. She’s been my dealer for 28 years. 28 years feels like 28 minutes. It’s scary how time flies. That’s the trajectory. It was incremental. I feel so fortunate that someone even knows my name and my work. I’m not being disingenuous when I say that. I think the whole subculture, like many, are full of arbitrary decisions and crapshoots.


AB: Have you always been a big reader? Or did you become more so during this time in your life when you were trying to figure yourself out?


BK: I think I became a reader during that time, and don’t read as much as I’d like to now. In many ways, I have a short attention span, and that has helped me connect with the quality of reading going on today. Whoever thought that the literature of the future would be the haiku?


Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 1.58.16 PM©Barbara Kruger. "Untitled" (We don't need another hero), 1987.


AB: In Interview Magazine you are quoted as saying, “There can be an abusive power to photography,” singling out street photography and photojournalism as examples. How can photography become abusive, in your opinion?


BK: I’ve done so much work about the power of pictures and words to tell who we are and who we aren’t, and how stereotype works. I think there’s an act of power pointing a camera at a person. Street photography, for instance, was a whole career niche based on the ability to look for the most divine moment, the most grotesque extremity, the most extreme comment you could make, and to build up a career of capturing those moments. I don’t think it’s evil, but it has been underexamined as a methodology of power and capturing. The same thing is true for photojournalism in general. The question today is: do pictures make a difference? Things have changed in terms of everyone carrying a device that is camera-like and capturing every moment. We’re seeing a transformation of what photojournalism and journalism is through Twitter and through Instagram. It certainly dislodges the uncontested site of the “photojournalist.”


AB: Especially when an amateur gets the cover of Time! But as a photographer, I think it’s exciting.


BK: Me too! I think it’s a democratization of access to technology and picturing. Again, because it’s a tool, it can serve both good and evil and everything in between.


AB: Had you ever met Susan Sontag?


BK: No, I’d never met her.


AB: Were you influenced at all by her writing?

BK SpreadFrom left to right: ©Barbara Kruger. "Untitled" (Your gaze hits the side of my face), 1981.; "Untitled" (Don't turn me inside out), 2008.


BK: I only found out later about her writing on photography, which I agree with. You have to understand that Diane Arbus was a teacher of mine.


AB: What was that like having Diane as a teacher?


BK: She was terrific. I liked her tremendously. She was the first female role model I had that didn’t wash the floors six times a day. I was saddened, and even angry, when I heard of her death. But, even at a young age, I was very uncomfortable with her practice.


AB: Because of her subjects?


BK: Because of the method and manner with which she pointed her camera. It worked for her, but I really had some problems with it and still do. But again, I adored her as a person.


AB: Language can create as well as distort meaning. How would you describe your relationship to language in your work?


BK: It varies. In the image work, it’s on top of an image. My large, immersive installations are only text. And in my video, it’s interspersed; sometimes it’s spoken, sometimes it appears as an image. Because the video is time-based and immersive, it asks something else of the viewer. Whereas some of the pictures and words together, it’s a quicker read. That’s the kind of economy you learn at magazines.


AB: Your work has appeared in a variety of formats outside of galleries and museums, everywhere from postcards to billboards, buses to coffee mugs. What are the reasons for this? Is this an attempt to break out of institutions and address people directly? A comment on commercialism?


BK: I think it’s a little of both. But it’s also trying to “reach out and touch someone.” There are so many different ways of working and being an artist. The subculture is so professionalized now. Everyone thinks they need an MFA or a PhD, and I have none of those things. That doesn’t mean I wish I didn’t. It would be nice to be a little more educated in a specific way. Nevertheless, some work is more coded than others, and if you don’t crash the code, you don’t get the full meaning of the work. That’s true with abstract and conceptual work. My work, some of it, not all of it, is available on a broader level. You don’t have to have a PhD in conceptual art to understand it. I felt I could occupy a number of sites and still make meaning that, hopefully, promotes doubt, and asks questions, and tries to be vigilant. Again, all the work is a series of attempts. I make no great claims for myself. I’ve said before that I’m fortunate that people know my name and my work. The work that is known and not known is so arbitrary. Now that the market has become so narrow, but huge, things have changed for young artists who think they are going to make money off their work. Most artists will never be able to support themselves through their work, even with the inflated market that’s happening now.


AB: Your signature style, text over appropriated images, seems to have transitioned well into the digital era. What do you think about the influence of digital mediums on art?


Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 2.09.39 PM©Barbara Kruger. "Untitled" (Thinking of you), 1999-2000.


BK: The biggest influence that digital mediums have on art is that people buy art from jpegs now. That has fueled a very narrow portion of the market. The way it’s changed things on a broader level is that images and meanings are available globally and instantly. Not only the making of art, but the commentary around art. The commentary around art can be rich, developed criticism and theoretical writing, or the most damaging opinion-making and pathology-driven declarations and judgments. It could also be the fact that, when you walk into a museum now, people have cameras and are making videos, or they’re talking to their friends and not even looking at what’s on the wall, or they’re just taking pictures of themselves saying, “I was here.” I don’t think that’s bad, but I do think it represents a crisis in what it means to be a museum. How institutions deal with that is going to be interesting, especially in a country where there is no government support for culture and the arts. When I lived in New York, I was not part of museum culture. When I came out to California, because museums here have artists on their boards, I got involved with being on boards of museums, so I understand both the privileges and the struggles. Museums in Europe are going through the same problems now because there has been withholding on government funding for culture.


AB: Talking about museums changing, I can’t help but think of Jeffrey Deitch. He’s been influential in changing the landscape of museums by creating these spectacles, which has been become an important part of how museums today function and bring in an audience. What are your thoughts?


BK: I’ve known Jeffrey since 1978. There’s been a long history of doing populist shows in museums. Even before he came to MOCA, there was the Murakami show and there was a boutique in the lobby. These things did exist. I thought his street art show was fabulous and was in the line of what MOCA shows are. So, I don’t think that it’s anything new. Also, I did the very first show in Jeffrey’s Wooster Street space. I have tremendous affection for Jeffrey. I just think (and he would agree) it just wasn’t a match. MoCA has always been a curatorially driven institution. Jeffrey saw himself as a curator, which meant the curator felt out of loop. It was far more complicated than the way it was reported in the press. There were no good guys and bad guys. It was just a situation that was an example of the difficulties of cultural institutions today.


So, it’s not like I’m avoiding the controversy thing, it’s just that I think it’s a construct. What is controversy? If you go on a right-wing website, you’ll see what they think controversy is. What’s controversial in little skirmishes in the art world are like tempests and tea pots. What is so-called transgressive behavior? What creates conversation and shame? What makes shock? Who knows? These are very variable situations.


AB: Which you address.


BK: I try! I have a series of attempts.


AB: It’s interesting what you said before, because one of the reasons I like your work, aside from it being appealing visually, is that I can understand it without having to read about it. I just wonder what a lot things would be like if you didn’t have a piece of paper to explain them.


BK: It’s complicated because that’s the way the subculture has changed. I remember going to an art show in SoHo when I was young and didn’t know the art world at all, and feeling so angry and intimidated by this work because I hadn’t crashed the code. I thought it was a conspiracy against my own intelligence. I can relate with those yahoos in Congress who said, “My monkey could do that.” Do I think they’re right? No, I don’t! But I do know that people who feel a lack of knowledge, feel shame and anger. It’s possible to be educated and to crash the code and to get a great deal out of that work in consideration. Examined lives are interesting and productive and priceless in many ways, and they get examined through many methodologies, some more complex than others. It doesn’t mean that the complexity makes for a better examination, but it can wield some great rewards when you have crashed the code. I’m for all different ways of thinking. I’m also wary because America has always been such an anti-intellectual culture.


I think it’s possible to be brilliant and to make huge leaps that are productive and mind-blowing, and not use language that is impenetrable and opaque. Some language purposefully mystifies and doesn’t even know it’s doing it. I frequently say to students, how important it is to begin to learn how to write about their work. If you don’t at least have a baseline of what you think you’re doing in your own language, you’re going to have someone else write a press release, and you don’t want to hear how dealers talk about your work.


AB: How would you write about your work?


Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 2.13.12 PM©Barbara Kruger. "Untitled" (We have received orders not to move), 1982.


BK: I wrote for Artforum for many years. I didn’t write about art, I wrote about movies and television, because I grew up with both of those things. Writing is like pulling teeth for me, it’s the hardest thing, I did do that for many years. I’d just say I’m an artist who works with pictures and words because I think they have the power to tell us who we are and who we aren’t, what we can do and what we might not do. I’d say I try to make work about how we are to one another. It deals with power, with definition, and with agency: all of the things I think about.


AB: You and Richard Prince are two artists who use the vocabulary of mass production in their work. In our last issue, we featured Richard’s Instagram series. What do you think about social media? Have you ever consider using it in your art?


BK: I don’t know about using it in my art. I very much follow it. It’s interesting because it brings all this information to us, and yet it can narrow us. I frequently tell people that when we used to read newspapers in hard copy, I would read every section rigorously, three hours a day. When you read online, you read more selectively and not as rigorously. You go to websites that you have bookmarked. I think Richard’s discovery of Instagram has been very productive for him, and another part of what his engagement has always been. He’s an amazing artist.


AB: You often address the viewer directly in your work, usually using the pronouns “you” or “we.” Is there a particular response you are trying to provoke from viewers?


BK: I think a work or an image makes meaning in different ways, and different places, and different bodies. There are generalized meanings that can be taken, but people have such varied opinions about what those meanings are. It’s not like I can make a prediction. In general, I’m interested in ideas of power, of life and death, of money, control, sexuality, and pleasure. It’s a broad base of possibilities for me. Once again, I’m wary of categories so I like to leave it as open as possible.