Originally published on Complex. I also interviewed the curator of the Hirshhorn exhibition, Melissa Ho.
Barbara Kruger’s work since the ’80s has drawn from visual culture as much as it’s redefined it, and in a world increasingly consumed by imaging and appearance, her art seems more relevant than ever.
In the ’60s, at age 19, Barbara Kruger was a graphic designer for Condé Nast, after dropping out of the Parsons School of Design. There, she learned that combining photos and text could be art.
In 1991, she created her early wall wrap installations in silk-screened black and white, because she couldn’t afford color. The dawn of cost-efficient digital production with vinyl allowed her to add red and cover giant rooms.
Her work inspired the Supreme and OBEY logos. Shepard Fairey calls her one of his biggest influences. She placed the words “It’s all about you / I mean me / I mean you” across Kim Kardashian’s naked body on the cover of W magazine. She quoted Malcolm X, Courtney Love, and H.L. Mencken on an NYC bus project.
Here, Barbara describes the meaning of this work and how it fits into her vast repertoire.
What does it mean to you to have this area display your work — right now, in Washington, D.C., during an election year, and on the National Mall?
How long did it take you to plan Belief+Doubt specifically?
I like it being installed right before an election. The Hirshhorn is a really terrific building, and a lot of people go there. It takes me about a month and a half to plan and work on building the files. The installing didn’t take long after it was printed.
Could you elaborate on the experience of installing these full-room wraps with today’s technology, especially without the limitations you may have had when you started doing this in 1991?
The early digital print was very bad. It was nowhere near the resolution and sharpness of silk-screen. After about eight years, it finally got there, but it took a while. If you’re doing long distance viewing, it doesn’t make a difference, but back then, if I wanted a digital image with vinyl, it just wasn’t good enough. Working digitally offers so many more possibilities. It’s terrific.
Belief+Doubt includes the Malcolm X quote, “Give your brain as much attention as you do your hair and you’ll be a thousand times better off.” You included the same quote on a bus wrap in 1997 in New York City. What about its message resonates with this installation, fifteen years later?
What made you decide to center the installation around the equation, “Belief+Doubt = Sanity?”
What is the purpose of the smiley face in Belief+Doubt?
You come from an editorial background. What was it like to revisit that type of work with both the Elliot Spitzer cover for New York magazine in 2008 and the Kim Kardashian cover for W magazine in 2010?
Going back to Condé Nast with W was funny and ironic, and I was happy to do it. It’s so interesting, because I remember when I worked there, they would have these meetings and fret about how television was going to cut into their market. Of course, television did not cut into the magazine market. Now, we’re in a whole different crisis of what a brick and mortar newspaper or magazine is, and how online life has challenged and changed it. Of course, it’s amplified it, too. You can get your information in different ways. I’ll ask you — do you read mostly online or in hard copy?
That reminds me of a piece Shepard Fairey wrote about you in Juxtapoz magazine, where he said that if he could put anyone’s art in the White House with Barack Obama, it would be your We Don’t Need Another Hero piece.
Maybe in a way, your installation at the Hirshhorn comes as close to that as possible, being on the National Mall in an election year.
You started navigating the art world at a very young age, without formal art school instruction and mentorship. What kind of advice can you give to artists in 2012?
Was it better when the art world was twelve white guys in lower Manhattan? I don’t think so. I’m just so glad that there are more and more artists in the world today — showing and telling what it means to be alive in different ways.
There are a million ways to make art. I support all of them. I don’t think there’s one correct way of being an artist. But I do think that there are certain contradictions, especially here in America. One is that being an artist has become so professionalized, in terms of a multitude of artists with their MFAs, PhDs, and more graduating art schools each semester. How are they going to support themselves, when the visual arts are so marginalized in this country?
Basically, the only time you hear about the art world is when you hear about some sort of secondary market or auction price that’s out of this world. A very small percentage of artists can support themselves through their work. That was certainly true when I was coming up. I never thought that I’d sell my work, because there was barely an art market then. Now, there’s a huge art market, but unfortunately, many people buy not because they love a work, but because it’s the only speculative bubble left, now that real estate’s not so great.
These are real contradictions. Young people want to be artists, because they want to make commentary and make meaning. On the other end, people want to buy it and sell it, because they can turn a quick profit.
But art will continue to be made, whether it’s textured, musical, movies, visual arts, or buildings. Great work will continue, but how the people who make it can support themselves, that’s a different question.
Posted in: Complex