There is a selection of artists whose work we can consider truly important in 2012. The most prominent among them continue to create without boundaries. Barbara Kruger's limitless 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 it's ever been.
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.
Belief+Doubt arrives at the Hirshhorn Museum on August 20, 2012, reminding us to question assumed authority and pay attention to how we treat one another. After interviewing curator Melissa Ho about the installation, Barbara spoke with us to explain the meaning of this work and how it fits into her vast repertoire.
I think that belief and doubt shouldn't exist as a binary; it shouldn't have to be one or the other.
What does it mean to you to have this area to display your work — right now, in Washington, D.C., during an election year, and on the National Mall?
I'm thrilled! I'm fortunate that I was invited to do this. Issues of doubt, control, power, affection, contempt, owning, not owning, buying, selling — these are all things that make up our everyday lives. This is what has engaged my work for years.
How long did it take you to plan Belief+Doubt specifically?
I went to look at the place, first. Obviously, you can't do anything until you look at the space. At this level, it's a very spatial practice. I looked at what some of the possibilities were. Could I engage the floor? Would the ceiling work? Are the walls ok? The escalators presented a terrific opportunity to make meaning in a few directions and present diagonals. Any space that you can also engage an aerial view is an exciting thing — being able to look up at something or look down at something. I love the challenge of doing it.
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.
I did work in magazines for years, and it's where I learned the fluency that I work in.
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?
When I first started in 1991, it was all silk-screen. It was much more expensive, obviously. It's much easier and cheaper to print digitally with vinyl. There was one silk-screen bed in Ontario, it's the largest in North America, and it's right outside Toronto. When America outlawed billboards for tobacco and alcohol, the billboard business went through a big change. At the same time that they were losing all of those accounts, digital became more prominent.
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?
Well, I love that quote, because it's both serious and funny. It's both critical and pleasurable. I think that's a great way of making meaning.
What made you decide to center the installation around the equation, "Belief+Doubt = Sanity?"
When you come down the escalator, that first wall immediately says "Belief+Doubt = Sanity." It's one of the first readings you do. I think that belief and doubt shouldn't exist as a binary; it shouldn't have to be one or the other. The contestations over the centuries about belief, what you believe, who believes what, and who doubts what, have become so determinant. It translates to who lives, who dies, who rules, who wins, and who loses. Certainly, it's alive and well in the election debates. It has been for years.
What is the purpose of the smiley face in Belief+Doubt?
I think that it serves as comic relief, but it can also be used ironically. In the middle of more serious questions, having a smiley face works both as an absolute "smiley face" and an irony, too. In this case, it's an absolute "smiley face," and if you notice, they're placed over the restrooms. That is always a welcome thing for people to see. I wish there were more smiley faces welcoming people in downtown Manhattan!
I'm glad somebody knows my name. I'm glad somebody knows my work. I never thought that would happen.
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?
Thank you for saying I worked in editorial; a lot of people confuse that with advertising still. I never worked in advertising. I did work in magazines for years, and it's where I learned the fluency that I work in, but not the meaning of what I'm doing. I changed the meaning. The formal fluency — not so much in my video work or in my spatial work, certainly in the use of image and text — came from that job every day.
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?
It's so interesting, because I do both. I do feel that you read differently online. I'm a news junkie. I read The New York Times every day, and I try to read hard copy everyday, because I feel that I read more rigorously that way. But I read online, too. I read The Guardian everyday from London. I read the L.A. Times, a lot of magazines, and whatever else I can. But I do think that when you read hard copy, you just read things that you might not see online. When you're online, you read your bookmarks, what you like, and what you're familiar with — your "go-tos." It doesn't really widen your world that way. This is why I think there's so much extremity in culture today. I go to a lot of right-wing websites, and I watch Fox News, because I like to know how consensus is being built.
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.
Well, yeah, I doubt that's going to happen. I appreciate him saying that.
I try to make work about how we are to one another.
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.
I'm happy right where I am. I try to make work about how we are to one another, in this broader sense of what our social relations are — how we treat one another, how we love one another, how we loathe one another, who wins, who loses — all of that. I'm glad somebody knows my name. I'm glad somebody knows my work. I never thought that would happen.
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?
It's really weird, because it's changed so much. I think it's better now. I'm not nostalgic. To me, these are the good old days, not because they are "good," but because we are alive to experience and change them.
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.