Rabble-Rousing Artist Barbara Kruger on Why She’s Plastering LA’s Buildings With Questions ‘About What It Means to Live Another Day’

The artist's 179 banners will appear throughout the city this week.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 2020, at the NeueHouse Hollywood. Photo courtesy of the NeueHouse Hollywood.

Artist Barbara Kruger‘s signature sans-serif slogans are being plastered all over Los Angeles this week as part of a new public art commission from the Frieze art fair, which is opening in the California city on Friday. But the average Angeleno, Kruger suspects, won’t even notice them.

“Most people in the country don’t know the name of one artist,” Kruger told Artnet News. “People are deluded to think that the visual arts have any real mainstream currency!”

Kruger’s latest work features confrontational, open-ended inquiries, such as, “IS THERE LIFE WITHOUT PAIN?” or “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”

The work is part of in her ongoing series “Untitled (Questions).” Last year for Frieze she presented works from the series in the form of unobtrusive stickers, slapped on sidewalks both at Paramount Studios, where the fair was being held, and near various Los Angeles art institutions.

This year, Kruger has a newly revised set of 20 questions, presented on a much larger scale: 179 street banners; murals at the NeueHouse Hollywood, the Standard, and outside of the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art; a bilingual presentation at the Union Station Passageway Art Gallery on the Los Angeles Metro, among other sites.

Barbara Kruger, <em>Untitled (Questions)</em>, 2020, at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo courtesy of Frieze Art Fair.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 2020, at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo courtesy of Frieze Art Fair.

“The questions have always been broad-based, ranging from more particularized concerns to sort of wider questions about what it means to live another day,” Kruger said. “I’m not saying this is going to change the world. I’m trying to engage with issues and ideas in ways that have constituted my work for the last 40 years.”

Kruger’s boldly graphic works, typically in black, white, and red, often juxtapose photography with pithy phrases set in Futura Bold Oblique typeface. It tends to offer biting commentary on social issues, but Kruger doesn’t want her art to be pigeonholed by politics. “I am a woman and I consider myself a feminist, but I don’t make women’s work and I don’t make political work,” she said. “I hate those categories.”

A Los Angeles resident since 1990, Kruger has seen the city change dramatically since she first visited in the mid-1970s—and not all for the better. “It’s getting increasingly expensive and increasingly hard for working-class poor and even middle-class people to live here now,” she said. “That’s a global problem for cities, especially where gentrification is rampant and housing for working class people is at at crisis point.”

Barbara Kruger, <i>Untitled (Questions)</i> (1990). Photo by Elon Schoenholz, courtesy of MOCA.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions) (1990/2018). Photo by Elon Schoenholz, courtesy of MOCA.

On the other hand, some things have undeniably improved for artists. “One thing that’s gratifying is the number of people who get to call themselves artists now has grown so much from when I started out, when there were 12 white guys in Lower Manhattan—there were many other people of color and women making art back east other than them, but the recognition was afforded to a select group,” Kruger said. “Now, people of different colors, of different classes, of different genders, are making work and making commentary. That’s important.”

Even as Los Angeles’s art scene grows, however, Kruger is hesitant to assign much import to market forces such as Frieze, or the arrival of mega galleries such as Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth. “I welcome whatever Frieze brings, but artists are here regardless of whether there’s an art fair or are hot galleries,” Kruger said. “Even without an increased gallery presence, without an art fair, Los Angeles would still be an important place for people to make culture.”

And despite the prominence of her work at this year’s Frieze, don’t expect to spot Kruger there. “I’ve never been to an art fair,” she said.

Barbara Kruger. Photo: Adriel Reboh, ©Patrick McMullan.

The project’s unveiling comes on the heels of the announcement of Kruger’s first major US museum survey in 20 years, which will touch down at the Art Institute of Chicago on November 1, titled “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” The show will then travel to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in Queens, London’s Hayward Gallery, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

An exhibition of this scale “is terrific and totally unexpected even after all these years, because I so know what it feels like to be absent and to be marginalized,” Kruger said. “I worked for a long time in relative anonymity—it took so long for me to even call myself an artist.”

“It never ceases to surprise me that people know my name and my work,” she added. “It’s very thrilling that it played out this way, but the art subcultures are very arbitrary and brutal and fickle, and I try not to take myself, or it, too seriously.”

Frieze Los Angeles will take place at Paramount Pictures Studios, entrance at Lot B 5400 Melrose Avenue or 801 N Gower Street, Los Angeles, February 13–16, 2020. Barbara Kruger’s works will be on view at various locations across the city beginning February 10, 2020. 

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