Working With Words

Some artists speak. Others whisper. A few even sing. In her just-opened retrospective exhibition at The Geffen Contemporary (the Museum of Contemporary Art's giant retooled police car garage in downtown Los Angeles), Barbara Kruger mostly shouts. (The show runs through Feb. 13, after which it travels to New York). The once-upon-a-time Conde Nast graphic designer specializes in appropriating old, harsh black-and-white photographs. She crops them so tightly the image seems about to explode, then blows them up on vinyl to the size of huge paintings and adds overlaid captions in her trademark font, Futura Bold Italic. "I Shop Therefore I Am," "We Don't Need Another Hero" and "Your Comfort Is My Silence," she booms in her pictures.

Kruger's colors are nearly always absolute black, white and red--perennial propagandists' favorites. Sometimes Kruger takes up a whole wall to instruct us. "All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype," for instance, is sign-painted in enormous type against a background of such epithets as "kike," "chink" and "wop." Sometimes (as in "Power Pleasure Desire Disgust" from 1997) she needs an entire room of truncheonlike painted phrases, with the addition of big, loud talking video heads saying such things as "Who the f--k do you think you are, Mr. Big Shot?" to get across her point. That point is usually how unpleasant we humans can be to one another.

In person, the talkative, curly-haired Kruger, 54, is anything but. An only child from a working-class family in Newark, N.J., she dropped out of college to study commercial art and get an entry-level design job in New York. Kruger quickly thought that "selling people another cashmere sweater was a career for a lady up the block, not for me." So she asked one of her teachers, "Why can't I be an artist by working with photographs and a Magic Marker?" Hearing the pre-rock-and-roll Patti Smith read poetry at artsy St. Mark's Church in the early '70s gave Kruger the answer she wanted. She went on to become one of the '80s' signature artists. She showed with the glamorous dealer Mary Boone. Her art appeared in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and on magazine covers--including one on family values for NEWSWEEK in 1993. She created public-service ad campaigns concerning abortion rights and AIDS whose style was, in turn, copied by groups like ACT UP. Kruger even wrote an infamous Esquire profile of Howard Stern (whom she praised for being an "a--hole" instead of merely a "creep").

Besides being identified with the art-star 1980s, Kruger is an icon of the from-the-hip phase of feminism that arrived between Gloria Steinem's women's lib and Katie Roiphe's anti-P.C. style. She uses the word "you" or "your" in the titles of 25 of the 70 works in the show and--as in "You make history when you do business" (1982) or "Your fictions become history" (1983)--it's pretty clear she's scolding a male-dominated culture for its abuses of power. In the '80s, Kruger's Big Brother-ish graphics made her a kind of Big Sister, fighting fire with fire on behalf of all the June Cleaver wanna-bes turned into consumerist lab rats by macho mercantilism. But Kruger says, "I've never been into the sex wars, ever. I'm not into women are good, men are bad. It's never been in my work." So what, then, is her work all about? It is, says Kruger, "about a free-floating terrain of desire and pain. I'm trying to capture the moments of extreme insanity, personal pleasures and verbal violence of this world. They can be white-light moments of enlightenment."

The poet Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. It's to Kruger's credit, and society's shame, that the problems she cites are still so much with us. But in art, there's such a thing as being too newsy, too right-on. Kruger's work has a relentless nowness to it that robs her retrospective of the feeling of well, a retrospective. You feel as if you're trapped in a giant maze of billboards, rather than peacefully tracing an artist's development over the years in the galleries of an art museum. A variation in pitch or volume would have made this a more enlightening show.