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Barbara Kruger: Art of Representation We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture Review by: Masako Kamimura Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 1987), pp. 40-43 Published by: Woman's Art Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1358339 . Accessed: 01/04/2014 03:15
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BARBARA KRUGER: ART OF REPRESENTATION "We won't play nature to your culture." Institute of Contemporary 4-December Arts, London,November 11, 1983. Reviewedby Masako Kamimura
as does every Allartcontainsa politic, conversation we have, everydeal we face we kiss.Whether make,and every or individually, producingcollectively we are responsiblefor the meaning whichwe create. I see myworkas a series of attempts to ruin certain representations, to displace the subjectand to welcomea femalespectatorintothe audience of men.1 BarbaraKruger

Barbara Kruger,born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945, is part of a generation of New York female artistswho workat the intersection of high and low art,of art and mass media/mass culture,and of image and language, and whose works .address certain ideological discoursesin thePostmodern mode.This group, all of whom use mediaconscious images or language fora purpose of social change, also includes Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosler, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Silvia Kolbowski, and JudithBarry. Kruger's work, in its specific concern with sexual politics,is arguablythe most explicitlyfeministof the group. In this respect,she shares a common ground with British artists Mary Kelly and Marie Yates,2whose works are constructed around feminist/ theoreticaldiscussions on sexuality, representation, ideology, and Indeed, Krugerbelieves that "any discourseor any politicalmovement which does not take feminisminto considerationis complicit."4 In her show at London's Instituteof ContemporaryArts (ICA), "We won't herfirst play natureto yourculture," exhibitoutsidetheUnited one-person States, the issues of gender and feminism wereclearlystated.5 about Whatwas especiallystriking theICA exhibitwas its couplingwith the one-personshow of New York artist Robert Mapplethorpe,known forhis classically posed photographs of sexually aroused young black males. The two shows' concurrence struck me as both interestingand disturbing:interestingbecause the betweenKrugideological difference

er's and Mapplethorpe'sart clearly punctuated the significanceof her because of Mapplework;disturbing thorpe's dominant representation and ideology(especially racism and colonialism). In Mapplethorpe's theyoung work, black man's penis is represented as the ultimate "fetish"6; the young black skin is totally "colonized" by the camera/gaze of the whitephotographer.These naked black men are in the way the oppressed portrayed always have been portrayedin the dominant representational tradition-as spectacle.At the ICA it was clear that Krugerwas attacking,or to displace,the verynotionof trying and convention art, representation, that Mapplethorpe's workembodied. Although Kruger says that she is "not interested in binary oppositions," she is neverthelessaware of thedifferences between herworkand Mapplethorpe's. As she explained: "Robert's workis more about desire and mine's more about pleasure. Desire only exists where there's in the absence.And I'm notinterested desireoftheimage."' She knowsthat "pleasure comes fromgiving meanand her art is indeed ing to things,"8 an art of meaning, pleasure, and representation. In "The Workof Artin the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"Walter Benjamin wrote: Forthefirst time in world history, mechanicalreproduction emancipates the work of art fromits onritual. To parasitical dependence an evergreater thework of degree, artreproduced becomes thework of art designedfor reproducibility. Froma photographic for negative, onecanmake example, anynumber ofprints; toaskfor the"authentic" printmakes no sense. But the instant thecriterion ofauthenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, thetotal function ofart is reversed. Insteadofbeing based on ritual, it beginsto be based on another practice-politics.9 Barbara Krugeris fullyaware of the politics of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Her use of photographyis radical, confrontational, agitational, and obviously influencedby Benjamin's theoryof montage.What Krugerdoes withher "selected"images and her own texts is to destroya certainorderofreprethetask ofherwork(orone sentation; of the tasks) is a political displacement of the traditional/dominant

mode of representation, a task she accomplishes through reappropriation-the radical and criticaltransformation ofsomeoneelse's image. Kruger radically crops, enlarges, and combines her found images (mostly frommagazines) with confrontational in large slogans printed black-and-white letters.The images are large-some are 4' x 6'-and black and white.(The onlycoloris the red of the frames.)"'In this process of critical reappropriation, Kruger creates a new hierarchyand a nonsynchronous relation between the "male-view"images and a woman's texts.And,if"ideologyis the system of representations,"" she challenges not only the dominantmode of representation but also the dominant ideology(bourgeois/patriarchal/sexist). The othertasks ofthis processare the displacement of subject-thus, "construction of female subject"'12 and displacementof the spectator's fixedposition.Krugerdemands parwho must ticipationofthe spectator, read the text,whose gender-address causes a displacement oftheassumed position of the spectator.Her work "welcomesthe femalespectatorinto the audienceofmen." Her wishis "to displace something... to change a stereotypical viewingand tomakefor a more active spectator in some way.... For me, as a woman first and then as an artist,it was important that my work-which I hope is critical and is read critically-enter that discourse."'3 This approach seems particularly Brechtian. Stephen Heath, in his essay, "Lessons from Brecht," discusses the position of the spectator in "Brechtiandistanciation":14 The aim is no longerto fix the but to pull the representation audience an activity of into reading; farfrom thespectator, separating thisis a steptowards hisinclusion
spectator apart as receiver of a

What Krugerwants to pull into the process is the female spectator,she in theprewho has been nonexistent of the audience, existedconstruction the "audience of men." She invites women into an active relationship with the text and encourages them to respondcritically and freely. At the ICA, the exhibition'stitle work,"We won'tplay natureto your culture" (1983; inside back cover),16 summarizes themeaningof perfectly Kruger's art. Here, the agitational

in a process.15

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Woman's Art Journal 41

facial phraseis set against a close-up, shot of a reposedwoman whose eyes are coveredbytwoleaves. She cannot see and does not speak, and in the aura, she appears photo'smysterious to be the archetypical enigmatic woman, the stereotypical image createdby the patriarchaldiscourse. Kruger purposely appropriates with familiarimages: "I am working with pictures, picrepresentations, tures we have all grown up with in some ways, picturesthat have dictated our desires,that have dictated our appearances.""' However,while the appropriatedpictureeffectively the stereotypical image, incorporates declares a refusal the caption firmly ofit. Her textis a precisecritiqueand analysis ofthemechanismofpatriarchal societyand culturethat defines women as nature in the "nature/ culture" division (thus excluding women fromthe cultural discourse) and whichjustifieswomen's oppression in the name of nature-with its false "biological" claims. Kruger declares war against a culturethat -manipulateswomenso as to confine themto the role of nature(and to an "essentialism" and "eternalism"), and ultimatelyrepresentsthem as such. The caption, thus, should be read as "We (women)won'tplay (the role of) natureto your(men's) (patriarchal) culture." Kruger's gender-oriented"We"/ is thedevicethat "I"/"You" address'8 itis encouragesfemalespectatorship; also the devicethat makes the meaning ofherworkexplicitand clear. As she explains: I'm not interested in any of this complicit subversion trip-an implicit critique-that peopletalk in mywork about.The critique is fairly you don'thave to explicit, read three essays by Doug Crimp to understand what my workis saying.19 Kruger's gender-addressis explicit, but it is not "directspeech"; on the contrary, it has a "distance in speech" which invites the spectator notonlytotheactiveviewingprocess, but also to the process of critical of the explicitness reading.However, her address has escaped the consciousness ofsome (male) viewers.In his 1982 essay, "Subversive Signs," Hal Foster asserts that Kruger's address is ambiguous,claiming"the place ofthe You and I is unsure.For example,over a photo of a shadowy man appear thewords:'Your comfort what is my silence.' What comfort, silence-and whose?"20 However, to becomethe "Other"in such works is crucially Kruger's gender-address as "We refuse to be your favorite not only because it is the important embarrassments"(1983; inside back key device that incorporates the spectator into her work but also cover) and "I will not become what I mean to you" (1983). In the former, because it is an essential part of the we see a close-upofpartofa woman's ideological discourse of her art. If Foster had understoodthe gender- head. The woman presumably is address, he would have known that lying on the beach, but all that is shownis herhair,ear, and neck-she Kruger's address is not ambiguous, but unquestionably has no face,thus,no identity. feminist. But we Kruger attemptsto remediatethe recognizea familiarfemaleimage in silenced voice of woman: "My work the streakof shining hair. What we is about a femalevoice,it's expected see is a collective ofdesirable identity that the male voice would try to femininity, in which women are silence a female voice when it reduced to "men's favorite embarbecomes vocal and it becomes seen rassments." In the latter work,the This oppressed voice of determinedwords are stamped all pictures."21"' woman is echoed in "We have over the woman's face, upon which receivedorders not to move" (1982; is superimposed a shadowy image of inside back cover),withtextstamped fur. With this artificial make-up, on a silhouetteof a seated woman which reinforces the notion of ideal withtacks pinnedto her body.Here, beauty in fashion's fictionalizing, theman who appears in theprevious "she" resolutely tellsus that she will work and silently (with a gesture) notbecomewhatshe means to"him." tells "her" notto speak has told"us" In these works,Kruger's negations not to move. What is shown is the are meant to disturba certaindisposhadow of a static woman, a totally sitionamong the spectators. subordinated-and totally objectiKruger constructsher critique of other" most "womanas an objectified fied-subject. Woman's lack ofsubjectivity is the in the work whose text effectively themeofmany ofKruger'sworks.In reads "Your gaze hits the side of my "I am youralmost nothing"(1983) a face" (1981; inside back cover).Here woman's hands in close-up the alternating black-and-white viewstray a blondwig.The nylonhairs words framethe leftside of a photo through coil around the hands and imprison of a marble bust of a woman shot them. The lettersare so small that fromthe right.Kruger'scriticism of we "almost" miss them. Here the the woman's objectification is cliched image of fragile femininity emphasized by the image of the underlines thecritique oftherelative, marble bust that objectifies her alienation as an object. Here the marginal, and obscure existence of woman, the "nonexistence" of real subject is already an object; it has woman.Kruger'scriticism involvesa already stopped, the moment of sarcastichumor in "I am yourimmacseeing suspended.As Jacques Lacan ulate conception"(1983),in which is has written: shownanotherclose-up ofa woman's At the moment the subjectstops, a polished hands,thistimescrubbing his gesture, he is morsuspending nail witha nail brush.Soapy bubbles The anti-life, tified. anti-movement cover the woman's hands and link of function this terminal is the point themwiththejewel-like soapy water fascinum Lacancallstheevil [what in the background. Here Kruger eyeofthegaze],and it is precisely mocks the way the cultural code of oneofthedimensions in which the patriarchy constructs a "female power of the gaze is exercised existence." directly.24 Simonede Beauvoir,in The Second Thus, the woman hereis at her most Sex, discusses woman's existenceas conceived by man: "Man defines vulnerable and most powerless;the woman not in herself but as relative power of a male gaze is exercised "Your gaze hits the side of to him; she is not regarded as an directly. autonomous being-and she is my face" successfully attacks the She also simplywhat man decrees."22 patriarchal culture's way of seeing discusses the notion of woman as woman as sex object;it is an assault Other: "She is definedand differen- on both fetishism(in the Freudian tiatedwithreference to man and not sense) and voyeurism. he with reference In a similar way, "We are being to her; she is the theinessentialas opposed made spectaclesof' (1983) assails the incidental, to the essential. He is the Subject,he of woman as spectarepresentation is the Absolute-she is the Other."23 cle-as a sexual being. Here,a photo declares her refusal of a flirting man and woman, with Krugerfirmly

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Woman's Art Journal

male bondingas a tooltohold society The social codes allow men together. to"touchtheskinofother men"while women are not given the same privilege; "we" are not allowed to have the same kind of relationships as deniesthebonding "you." Patriarchy between women; it also considers withwomentobe men'srelationships less importantthan their relationships with othermen. Withits analyticalphrasethatis bothpreciseand is oneofKruger's most bold,thiswork brilliant and mosteffective criticisms of patriarchy under capitalism, whose aim is, says Kruger, "to divide and conquer."25 In the statementexhibitedalong with her work at ICA, Kruger and strategy explainedthe intention ofherwork:
Weloiter outsideoftradeand speech and are obligedto steal language. We are verygood mimics.We repliand cate certainwordsand pictures watch themstrayfrom or coincide with your notions of fact and fiction. 6. 7. 8. 9. 2. is one that Krugerhas repeatedon severaloccasions. work is discussed at length MaryKelly's in Griselda Pollock and RoszikaParker, Art and Ideology(N.Y.: PanWomen, theon,1981).A workofMarieYates is cited laterin thistext. wereshown, works Kruger's alongwith those of Kelly,Yates, Kolbowski, and On RepresentaLevine,in "Difference: tionand Sexuality," which at originated theNew Museum ofContemporary Art in New York,December 8, 1984-February10,1985. "BarbaraKruger: Interviewed by John Art 1983Roberts," Monthly (December 18. January 1984), included other theICA exhibit Although areas ofKruger's the concerns, political dominant was feminism orsexual theme Forherone-person showat the politics. Annina Nosei Gallery, New York (March 10-April 13, 1984), Kruger on thelogic of consumer focused capitheoppression and talism, emphasizing of women in this latest exploitation stageofcapitalism. "Fetish"is usedherein a secularsense and not as a technical term of psychoanalysis. Interviewed 18. "Kruger byRoberts," inStephen Bertolt Brecht, quoted Heath, "Lessonsfrom Screen Brecht," (Summer 115. 1974), Walter "The Work ofArtin Benjamin, the Age of MechanicalReproduction," in Maynard and Solomon, ed.,Marxism Art (Detroit: WayneUniversity, 1974), 556-57. had madesomestylistic By 1986Kruger changes.At theAnninaNosei Gallery she showedseveral (February-March), two-color a largefull-color works, image, a piecewithout and onewithout words, images. There were also some large screensand some smallerthan usual in pink. and a few wereframed works, For Marx (London: Louis Althusser, 233. Verso, 1982), Interview in East Village withKruger 32. Eye (May 1984), Ibid.,32-33. is a concept "Distanciation" established in his theory of epic Brecht by Bertolt The basic functions theater. of distanciation are:toprovoke multiple positions of viewingand reading and critical activityfromthe audience; to work and illusion;to against identification the construction of repredemonstrate sentation and analyze the relation to between representation andmaterial; displace thedominant modeofrepresentation.The concept has in the last 20 filmtheory and critiyearsinfluenced cismand in turn has influenced Kruger. 111. Brecht," Heath,"Lessonsfrom never titles herworks, SinceKruger they will be referred to by theirtexts.The were donebetween 1981and 1983. works as a painter, worked for trained Kruger, Conde Nast publicationsfor eleven andphoto editor. She yearsas a designer withphotographs and began working textsin thelate 1970s,first separating word and image, then superimposing oneon theother. 18. Interviewed byRoberts," "Kruger Kruger's address is always gender-

the male's gesture suggesting a sexual contact between them, is dividedby the wordsinto fiveseparate pieces. Kruger,with her analytical statement, the repreinterrupts sentationof woman as spectacle,as themale ego. erotic pleasuretosatisfy The search fora femalesubject is the idea behind "We constructthe chorus of missing persons" (1983). Hereis an image ofa woman,herface totally coveredby her large striped text hat, copyingan undecipherable from ofher.The the book set in front image is covered by four different patterns of stripes-the woman's dress, her hat, the book, the background stripes on which the white letters are inscribed-all of which createa sense ofanonymity. Kruger's concern for the missing female expressed psycheand femaleidentity work of here echoes the photo/text Marie Yates's The Missing Woman, Phase II, exhibitedin 1985 at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art.Yates's textreads: Lacan's basicpremise is thatidenin language is constructed but tity
only at a cost. That cost is desire, loss, fortherehas to be persistent somethingmissing in order that language can designate it in its absence.The workhereis a play on that process of identification, in language in our belief that somewherethereis a point of cerand truths. taintyofknowledge


4. 5.

Her strategy,the critical examination of existingimages, is indeed an guage of existing order.She knows that in a bourgeois/patriarchal culture, women are "obliged to steal language." (In "Myth Today," Roland Barthes argues: "in a bourgeois culture,thereis neitherprolemoralnor proletarian tarian culture ity, there is no proletarian art; all thatis notbourgeois ideologically, is obliged to borrowfromthe bour geoisie."26) Kruger's effortsto dis place certain representations, t( displace the subjectwithinthe structure of patriarchal order, and to change the existingviewingprocess and positionby invitingthe female intothe male audience,are spectator to enter the all parts of her effort cultural and economical discourses excludedwomen, that have hitherto and, ultimately, to challenge the
language of patriarchy. the art of representation, more preeffective way to challenge the lan-


our as subject exploring persistence

structthe female subject while still of patricaught withinthe structure archal language. worksdeal Many oftheimage/text with the outputsof capitaldirectly ism.A feware issue-specific (e.g.,over a photoofa mushroom cloud,thetext reads: " Your maniacs become science"); some are concernedwith the workingsof bourgeois ideology (e.g., "Your fictionsbecomehistory" over a fragmented image of a head ofa Greekstatue).In works like"Your devotion has the look of a lunatic and sport" (over a photo of tortured chained hands) and "Your moments ofjoy have theprecisionof military strategy"(with an image of a muscular hand holding an Olympic torch), she attacks, among other systems, patriotism, nationalism, militarism, imperialism, and fascism. In "You construct intricaterituals whichallow you to touchthe skin of othermen" (witha photoof a bunch ofmenin formalsuits),Krugerrefers to the patriarchal constructionof

Like Yates, Kruger struggles to con-

11. 12. 13. 14.

Barbara Kruger'sartis, mostofall,

cisely,theartofpoliticaltransformation of the dominantsystemof representation.In the process of that she constructsher transformation, own language, the oppositional, alternative language that speaks for "us," the oppressed,exploited,and objectified "subjects." *
1. The firststatement is fromBarbara "Workand Money,"AppearKruger, ances(Summer 1982), 30,andthesecond

15. 16.

17. 18.

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Woman'sArt Journal 43
oriented: the"I/we"is a woman'svoice and the"you"is directed toward a man who is on the side of powerwithina patriarchal culture. One exception in the catalogueis whichis published "You are not yourself'(over a fragmented image of a woman's face, in a shattered in which reflected mirror) the"you"is directed toward a woman. 18. by Roberts," "KrugerInterviewed is an artcritic andSenior DouglasCrimp ofOctober. Editor Hal Foster, "Subversive Signs,"Artin America 90. (November 1982), in East VillageEye,33. Kruger, Simone de Beauvior,The Second Sex xviii. (NewYork:Vintage, 1974), Ibid. JacquesLacan, TheFourFundamental ofPsychoanalysis (NewYork: Concepts 118. Norton, 1981), From "Yourassignment and is todivide in which thesmall,menacing conquer," face of a man peers out of and is surrounded by seven shadowypillars thatrigidly fillup thepicture space. Roland Barthes, "Myth Today," in Straus (New York:Farrar, Mythologies & Giroux, 139. 1972),

19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25.

a i '

31 i


MASAKO KAMIMURAhas a master's from the Department of Cinema degree She is Studies,New York University. in Tokyo. andworking currently living "Lee Krasner: A Retrospective." Museum of Modem Art,New York, December 19, 1984-February 12, 1985.Essay by Barbara Rose. Reviewedby RobertHobbs We are all indebted to Barbara Rose for making available her extensive knowledge of Lee Krasner in the essay she wrote for the first full of Krasner's museum retrospective art.Rose's knowledge comesfrom her withKrasner,which close friendship developed in the last years of Krasner's life.This friendship might seem strange, consideringthe very different positionstakenby Rose and Krasner in the New York art world of the 1950s: Rose was an aspiring of the Cedar criticand a frequenter Bar where many of the Abstract Expressionists gathered, while Krasner was disenchantedwith the art world's politicsand optedto live on its periphery. But the almost 30in age between the year difference two women and theirvaryingorientationsto theheroicyearsofAbstract Expressionismmade them compatible twodecades later.They compared storiesand providedeach otherwith missing pieces of the puzzle that constitutedthe intimate New York artworldofthe 1950s.Whileworking on theWhitney MuseumofAmerican Art exhibition, "Abstract Expres-

Museum Blue and Black (1951-53),oil on canvas, 58" x 821%". Fig.1. Lee Krasner, ofFineArts, Houston. sionism:The Formative Years," I had an occasion to see the two women interact:theyhad evolved a special banterand a privatelanguage which indicated the depth of their relationship. I anticKnowingofthisfriendship, ipated that Rose's catalogue might providenew insightsinto Krasner's art and life. Unfortunately, the friendship seems to have limited Rose's inquiryand caused her to be much too circumspect about Krasner's art and its relationshipto Jackson Pollock and the other As the only AbstractExpressionists. female who can be considered a memberof this group,Krasner occupied a special position which, if properlyunderstood,can provide a the difficulway of comprehending maleties and limitsofthisprimarily oriented art. Although Rose has compiled an enormous amount of biographicalmaterialthat will be of value to future scholars, and although she obviously has great forhersubject, feelingand sympathy the human element is lost in her Formalto writean orthodox, efforts ist art historical account. Rose's reliance on Formalismcauses her to describeKrasner's workin a technical, pseudo-scientific language which is outofsyncwiththeprofessed aims based art. of this psychoanalytically Indeed,Rose has notgonebeyondthe Formalism of criticClement Greenhusband, artist berg and her former Frank Stella; she uses such 1950sand "fram1960s termsas "verticality," ing edge," and "physicality" to describe Lee Krasner's paintings. These words,which are appropriate to Stella's work, have a curiouseffect whenappliedto Krasner's.Theytend to distancethereaderfrom theworks of art,whichlose theirintimacyand spontaneity. Rose's language commodifies the art. For example, when writingof Krasner's Blue and Black (1951-53; Fig. 1), Rose notes: The repetition ofthefiligree motif at theleft, in an enlarged version of itselfat the right, sets up an ofspatial tension. The original type is that thesmallfiligree suggestion whenin imageis in thedistance, factit is as firmly anchored to the reflecpicture planeas itsenlarged tion. Blue and Black is a fully evolvedcolor-field paintingthat Mondrian successfully synthesizes and Matisse and adds the new elementsof spatial tensionand dramatic (72). impact Rose's analysis is true as far as it goes, but it fails because it describes a painting as if it were a laboratory specimen.Such language maybe fine for scientificdata, but is limiting when it attemptsto describea work of art which is firstand foremost a metaphorical statement. Certainly Matisse and Mondrianare important for this painting, and Matisse's window,which plays on the idea of a painted opening that in turn

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