by Peter Zimmerman

The act of looking at art is usually a fairly peaceful exercise. Rarely is it the sort of mental anguish that has been espoused by often-fanatical art historians of the early 20th Century who believed that disharmonious paintings could provide the catalyst for disease, insanity, or physical harm (abortions, etc). In the 21st Century, art is disseminated in more ways than we could have even imagined a hundred years ago, and because of this many feel that, in some ways, the image has been stripped of much of its sovereign power. Going on MOMA’s website provides a look into the art that makes up the collection, but it’s only a look– only a glance– nothing more than hundreds of pixels by hundreds of others. But we still say that it’s art– that the image on MOMA’s website is still a representation of the real thing, and thus holds some significance. And all the while, we are enjoying the process of sitting at our computer, perusing MOMA’s site to find out more about the recent Míro show.

What is rarely discussed is the web of significance that exists behind every motion of art-looking. The fact is that the ways in which images are disseminated now are all marked by cultural coding. While one may make this claim for the entire history of past art consumption, I feel the advent of the Internet and digital media has forever changed the face(s) of art and the machines through which it is processed and promulgated. In the 21st Century, the gallery, museum and collector compete with the blog, video embeds, digital photographs, social network sites, street art, and avatars to engage the public with what they label art. Interestingly enough, while it appears that there has been a severe democratization of the image, it seems that the hierarchies of high and low still remain incredibly solid.

Barbara Kruger takes issue with the spaces of cultural institutions and networks. Nothing is sacred from her searing gaze (if we can even call it that). Last year, she joined forces with Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler for West of Rome’s “Women in the City” public art exhibition. “Plenty,” [2008]The show took place across Los Angeles, CA in February 2008, and featured works by these artists on billboards, giant projections, posters, stickers, marquees, jumbotrons, and through the mediums of video, image, and sound. The point of the exhibition was to gather four women who spearheaded the feminist art movement of the 1980s and bring them back to the streets. The press release for the show reads, “One of the fundamental achievements of the historical feminist movement was the appropriation of the streets: thousands of women were invading the cities of the western world fighting for their rights. Now that those rights have been asserted and women have begun to fully permeate and influence politics, culture and the art system, “Women in the City” can showcase the art of women in empowered position.” ( It’s an intriguing concept– bring together four women who have been culturally established and accepted as worthy and re-deploy them in a heightened form of theatricality than was first used for the original works of art (except perhaps Holzer). Cindy Sherman did not bring herWomen in the City Installation Shot 1 (Sherman), 2008 “Untitled Film Stills” out in New York City as billboards. Louise Lawler did not broadcast through websites, libraries or big theatres at the end of the 1970s. And lastly, Barbara Kruger did not bring her works out in huge displays during the early 1980s (and important to point out– Kruger’s work for this exhibition were all new works, unlike those of the other three women).

What does theatricality have to do with these artists now? Well, perhaps much more than originally seen or believed. It came into focus through the academic vernacular of Michael Fried in his essay response to Minimalism “Art and Objecthood,” but it also harkens back to artists such as Daguerre, Diego Rivera, and Jackson Pollock, and it calls upon the theoretical frameworks of psychoanalysis (Freud), power dynamics (Foucault/Bourdieu) and image rhetoric (Barthes). Theatricality is not something that can be easily ignored; rather, it is something that has not only haunted the latter half of the twentieth century, it has defined in many ways just that. Land art/Earth works both changed the site of performance from the studio/gallery/museum to the outdoors and questioned the relevance of the viewer. Minimalism shifted focus from the artwork to the experience had by the consumer. Conceptualism challenged the notion that art had to exist in physical form at its most basic level. The shift after Abstract Expressionism was marked by the presence and deployment of theatricality. While it may have been anathema to Michael Fried, it certainly resonated throughout the art world and its publics.

Barbara Kruger is a critical point of analysis and departure for our notion of theatricality in latter 20th Century art history. While she started her career at the young age of twenty-two as art editor for Mademoiselle magazine and had been included in the Whitney biennial in 1973, she did not begin to delve into the issues of space, boundaries, and limitations until her “Pictures/Readings” pictures were self-published in book form in 1978. “Pictures/Readings” [1978]In this work, Kruger took photographs of the exteriors of buildings and placed them on the left page, and then on the right page included a narrative text describing some relationship, dialogue, dilemma, or dramatic scene. The narrative informed the pictures, and the pictures in turn validated the narrative as having time and space; otherwise, these two elements would seem un-anchored, floating in a conceptual world of abstract data. The “Pictures/Readings” book led to Kruger’s similar work on hospitals in the same year. In this series, Kruger worked with much of the same layout and format, but this time shortened the narrative text segments to quick phrases, like “Go away,” “Not now,” or “Not that.” or lists of succinct explorations into the world of power dynamics, experience, and the human condition, with phrases like “The illumination of the physical,” “The technology of disposability,” “The body as machine” and “The comfort construct.” The “Hospitals” works pushed Kruger more towards the sharp, biting and aggressive phrasing style that would be the defining mark for the red/white/black text/image works that began in 1981. But what must be mentioned about this series is that the “Hospitals” was really the first moment where Kruger began to overtly flirt with the constructs of hegemony, death, and violence, and did so in a way that was theatrical in its juxtapositions and extrapolated confluence of significances.

Coming Alive in Space
The line of influence from 1978 to 1981 in Barbara Kruger’s career is fairly transparent, with the words and images mixing together to eventually create the overlays for which she is so well known. This pattern of art-making continued through the 1980s, but it was not until 1989 that Barbara Kruger’s work seemed to reach a new level of significance and vitality. At this point, Kruger chose to exhibit in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City in ways she had never before– by attacking the interiority of the gallery space and transforming it into site-specific installations of photomontage, image, text, and architectural manipulation. Space, architecture, and the translation of rhetoric have always been forefront in the readings of Barbara Kruger’s work, but in 1989 these concerns became foundations for conveying a distinct message about the operation of space as site of significance and performance.

Mary Boone Gallery #1, 1981In the Mary Boone Gallery show from January 1991, Barbara Kruger covered the floors, walls and ceilings with text and then placed images and photomontages across the walls. What had been a scrupulously clean, minimal white cube gallery became an arena of hostility, swathed in black, red and white. While many may claim that the images in Kruger’s juxtapositions inform the text and provide a certain irony yet take a backseat to the message, this sentiment became incredibly apparent during the show. Language was the main medium for these installations, providing the visual and intellectual impetus for meaning and acting as the overwhelming point of communication. The entire floor was bathed in red, making it look like blood stains with white letters shining through. And not only was the visual aspect arresting, but the tone and content of the text was even more blistering. It began with “All that seemed beneath you is speaking to you now. All that seemed deaf hears you. All that seemed dumb knows what’s on your mind. All that seemed blind sees through you.” Kruger uses the construct of linguistic opposition– contradiction at its most basic and pure form. But if Kruger is the one who made the art, does that mean she also is the one dictating the words? Is she the one speaking to “you,” the viewer? Where does Kruger end and an omniscient, formless voice begin? I think there is a bit of both, and perhaps this is what allows Kruger the artistic remove while enjoying the full benefits of the cultural indictment. So, when we read “All that seemed beneath you is speaking to you now,” we feel like Barbara Kruger can see right through us– that she is revealing us in a certain way, but we also acknowledge that she is not blameless, that she cannot escape the terrors of cultural retribution; rather, she is both human and artist, and maybe the fusing of the two allows us to realize the impact of the message while not being gripped by utter terror. We can perceive the machine behind the words, but that doesn’t mean that they lose neither their power nor their significance.

Mary Boone Gallery #2, 1981While the power of the language is certainly a focus of the exhibition, one cannot forget to mention the sheer design of the space. The burst of red upon the greyscale and monochromes of white and black is more savage than one would expect. It covers the ceiling, turns the floor into a sea  upon which letters are stamped, and while it is almost anti-painterly in its graphic background nature, it almost seems like it could drip down the sides of the walls. The color acts as the background, but it’s more like a virus, creeping through the moments we perceive as important — those of the textual exposition. And then you have images of screaming children, a giant baby sucking on a seemingly enormously distorted in size bottle of milk, a man with a locked steel door access to his brain, and a naked woman wearing a gas mask propped up on a cross, making her into an S&M flavored 20th Century pornographic Mary Magdalene cum Jesus Christ. The agonizing words, the vitriol of the color red, the brutality of the images, and the paralyzing installation design all overwhelm and cripple the viewer. There really isn’t a way to escape the message Barbara Kruger lays out all around you– you cannot leave Mary Boone Gallery without feeling somewhat violated.

We as art historians like to discuss works as having open hostility and leaving searing imprints on our psyche; however, oftentimes these declarations are merely hyperbolic statements made to intensify the popularity of a certain artist or trend. It’s almost absurd to compare Cindy Sherman’s “Centerfolds” with Barbara Kruger’s 1991 exhibition are Mary Boone. The Sherman works display women in a horizontal position in seemingly vulnerable situations, and they certainly retain a level of fear and a distinct taste of terror in them. But put against an installation like Kruger’s, they pale in effectiveness of social accusation. They lack the caption, the heightened irony, the linguistic signifying presence. They seem almost flattened next to the assault launched by Kruger. How, then, can we ameliorate these as both worthy of our attention? Here is where I caution writers and theorists to leap into sweeping conclusions of the feminist practices of female artists against a hegemonic process, culture or figure; rather, I feel these works need to be viewed through a negotiated lens. We cannot state that one is any less feminist than the other because of the range of implicit violence or “effectiveness.” One of the major points of 1980s feminism was the importance of the breadth of the female experience, and thus we could not put all women in one box– that what one woman experienced could vary greatly from someone else in much the same supposed position. Thus, second-wave feminism granted a wide span of reaction– the status quo could not be necessarily stated monolithically. Because of this extensive scope, we cannot pair works by these women artists next to each other and expect similar reactions. Barbara Kruger’s approach to feminism is obviously going to differ from Cindy Sherman. Her appropriations are going to look wildly divergent from Sherrie Levine’s. This is where the Women in the City exhibition of 2008 succeeded– it presented a small spread of female “80s” artists, but it still was able to convey the multiplicity of feminist meanings through various media and locations. Therefore, it is important to note that while we would all like to make a nice category for feminism, the point of the venture in the 1980s was to develop a vernacular– a language, a code, a paradigm– that was its own and on its own terms. Thus, while we can go on and on about applying certain themes to their work (theatricality, violence, hostility, outrageousness, sharp editing, etc) nothing really captures the extents to which these works of art actually operated, successfully or not.


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