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Barbara Kruger:
PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH



Her unmistakeable collages of text and image characterized the visual culture of the 1980s. With an important work from this decade, Barbara Kruger is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Her investigations of sexism, consumerist terror, and social power structures are as relevant as ever, as can be seen in her new video installation on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the American artist, whose slogans such as "I shop therefore I am" have long since become important components of our collective consciousness.




Barbara Kruger, Plenty, 2008, installation view,
Sunset Boulevard, project for Women in the City
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy West of Rome

"THANKS TO YOGA, YOGHURT, LIFE COACHES, ART, ASHRAMS, PHILANTHROPY, REAL ESTATE, PETS, SHOPPING, AND REHAB, YOU’VE FOUND PEACE." If you happen to be traveling through LA these days, you might have noticed this capitalist mantra innocuously inserted into the urban landscape on billboards, LED panels, logos, and neon signs. Plenty is the title of Barbara Kruger’s current video installation presented on large video screens scattered throughout the city: on the top floor of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and on two electronic billboards on Sunset Boulevard simultaneously commissioned for ordinary advertisement. Kruger’s images appear one per second; they resemble fragments of ongoing commercials selling electronic entertainment equipment and no-name products. A gaudy silver wristwatch with fake gems sparkles before a turquoise background; jogging shoes and rhinestone pins are presented on revolving discs. The faces of people laughing or talking on the phone appear in close-up. These sequences are interrupted by sentence fragments, as though life were one endless flat-rate fee: "YOU ARE A VERY IMPORTANT PERSON"; "HANG UP AND DRIVE"; "PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH."




Barbara Kruger, Plenty, 2008, video still,
project for Women in the City
Courtesy West of Rome

This work is on view in the context of the project Women in the City; along with Barbara Kruger, the Milan gallery dealer Emi Fontana, curator of the non-profit organization "West of Rome," invited another three prominent American women artists to produce a work for the inner city of Los Angeles: Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler, and Cindy Sherman. All four represent the first generation of feminist artists who in the 1980s conquered not only the male-dominated art establishment, but also, like Holzer and Kruger, the streets of the major western cities, at the time settings of passionate battles for the rights of women and sexual, ethnic, and social minorities. In the LA Times, Emi Fontana said that she hopes that Women in the City will "remind a new generation that relationships between the sexes were not always as they are now. (…) Not dealing with feminism is for me the same as not dealing with history," she says. "I think a good artist should always deal with history."




Barbara Kruger, Plenty, 2008, video still,
project for Women in the City
Courtesy West of Rome

Fontana is not alone with this opinion. In the summer of 2007 there was a major celebrated exhibition of feminist art from the ’60s and ’70s titled Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles. Women in the City carries this current investigation further, dedicating itself to important post-feminist positions that made their mark in the 1980s. Thus, the project oscillates between retrospective and reassessment. The experiment of transplanting Jenny Holzer’s text works from the ’70s and ’80s, such as her Truisms, into the LA urban arena in poster form, or wallpapering Cindy Sherman’s legendary Untitled Film Stills onto huge billboards, is both an homage and a test. The visual strategies these artists invented have long since entered into the general inventory of mass media. Like Barbara Kruger’s Plenty, they cannot immediately be recognized as art in the commercialized urban landscape. "That’s also the part that interests me," says Emi Fontana. "It’s a kind of perverse pleasure. It’s just adding more signs to this city that already has so many."




Barbara Kruger, Plenty, 2008, installation view,
Sunset Boulevard, project for Women in the City
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy West of Rome


Barbara Kruger, Untitled
(We are all that heaven allows), 1984
Deutsche Bank Collection

And that is exactly what Barbara Kruger has been doing since the late ’70s. She wanted her messages to penetrate the cycles of consumerism and goods, "to enter the marketplace," as she explained in 1999, "because I began to understand that outside the market there is nothing—not a piece of lint, a cardigan, a coffee table, a human being."

She’d already learned the language of the market decades previously in the media industry. After graduating from Parsons School of Design in New York, where she studied with Marvin Israel at the same time as Diane Arbus, Kruger began her career in the late ’60s at Condé Nast. As art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Israel had already hired photographers like Lisette Model and Richard Avedon and also introduced Kruger to the scene. At first she worked as a graphic designer for Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar; later, she became art director and picture editor at House and Garden and the influential photography magazine Aperture.

Kruger’s early artistic works, made in 1969, were woven and embroidered wall hangings adorned with feathers and pearls, still very much influenced by the feminist reevaluation of the time and by a handicraft dominated by traditional "feminine" attributes. Although she took part in the 1973 Whitney Biennial and had her first one-person exhibitions in New York, the works didn’t yet do justice to her self-declared aim of actively influencing social and political discourses. It was only while teaching at Berkeley and investigating the essays of Walter Benjamin and the semiotics of Roland Barthes that she began working with collages of black and white photographs which in 1976 formed the basis for the visual vocabulary that would soon lead to her artistic breakthrough.



Barbara Kruger,
Untitled ((Money makes Money), 2001
© Barbara Kruger
Courtesy: Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Cologne, Munich, London

Since the early ’80s, Kruger has been working with her trademark, the Futura Bold Italic typeface, which she combines with found images from books, film stills, and ads. Kruger contrasts her material in a stark color scheme consisting of red, white, and black. She creates a modern agit-prop style reminiscent of the Dadaist montages of John Heartfield and the raw visual language of punk fanzines, but also of the seductive gloss of contemporary advertising. "I try to deal with the complexities of power and social life, but as far as the visual presentation goes I purposely avoid a high degree of difficulty. I want people to be drawn into the space of the work," as she explained in 1997 in Art in America. And accordingly, her 1984 work in the Deutsche Bank Collection appears to draw the viewer into a kaleidoscopic spiral. A fairy-tale ballerina performs her pirouettes in a lunar landscape, while a kind of cosmic solar whirlwind spins above her gracefully poised hands. The word bars placed at regular intervals on the picture’s edge read "We are all that heaven allows."




Barbara Kruger, Untitled (This is you), 1986
© Barbara Kruger
Courtesy: Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Köln, München, London

It’s no accident that this title recalls one of the most famous Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, All that heaven allows. Douglas Sirk’s film is centered around a woman entrapped in convention and notions of social morality: Jane Wyman plays a widow who falls in love with a much younger gardener played by Rock Hudson. At the same time, these Technicolor dramas embody the repressive constraints of the time in which patriarchal power relations went unchallenged and even the slightest sexual or social aberration from the norm could only be addressed covertly and in rigidly coded scenes.



Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Super rich/Ultra gorgeous/Extra skinny/Forever young), 1997
© Barbara Kruger
Courtesy: Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Köln, München, London


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