“Life is such a crapshoot,” says the artist Barbara Kruger. “It’s full of fortuitous moments and horrible tragedies – and everything in between.”
For this week’s Frieze art fair in Los Angeles, the conceptual artist has plastered the city with banners, billboards, and stickers emblazoned with provocative text in her signature all-caps Futura typeface. Pithy, politically charged questions such as “Who hustles” and “Who buys low” confront people traveling through downtown’s Union Station in English and Spanish. Meanwhile “Who buys the con?” addresses passersby of the 1930s-era CBS Radio building in Hollywood, which is now a co-working space.
Kruger’s 20 questions are in gleaming white and green ink – the color of cartoon money, envy, the cactus emoji. Though this series is an extension of Frieze, Kruger has never been to an art fair. And while this is not uncommon for some artists, it is unusual for one of her caliber to maintain such a distance from the art market. “Unfortunately I do have to sometimes show up to my own openings and dinners,” she concedes, “though I’d rather go to hell.”
Kruger is best known for creating fiercely anti-capitalist graphics that take on exploitation, class inequality, and divisive political ideologies. Before her work entered the mainstream, she was busy “sniping”, or illegally plastering her works on billboards and construction sites.
She gained notoriety in the 80s when her billboards addressing women’s reproductive freedom and internalized misogyny – “Your gaze hits the side of my face”, “Your body is a battleground”, and “I shop therefore I am” – captured the public’s attention.
In 2017, she staged a skatepark takeover on New York’s Lower East Side, a pop-up shop in SoHo, and a limited-edition line of MetroCards. The campaign was an ingenious way of responding through her work to news about a lawsuit filed by the popular skatewear brand Supreme, accusing another company of imitating its signature red-and-white text. To complicate matters, Supreme had long ago copied that very style from Kruger herself.
“Don’t believe hype,” she says. “That kind of delusion can injure us psychically and dampen our work.” When asked by Complex magazine to comment on the Supreme fiasco at the time, she replied with a blank email and a Microsoft Word document titled “fools.doc”. The attachment read: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”
Kruger, 75, grew up in a low-income family in postwar Newark, New Jersey. “My parents traded their labor for wages,” she says. She didn’t aspire to be an artist; that route was unimaginable to most women of her generation, let alone from her class background. Kruger was the first in her family to go to college; in the 60s she attended Syracuse University and Parsons for a year each. Decades later, she took visiting artist jobs at universities. “They were really visiting girl jobs because none of these schools would tenure a woman then,” she explains. “I had no degrees and I wasn’t famous, so I was lucky just to get a job.” For nearly two decades, she has taught at UCLA and split her time between Los Angeles and New York.
Kruger’s project for Frieze mocks multi-platform marketing campaigns; ironically, though, in adopting the language of branding, she has become a 21st century brand. Her artwork, along with the culture it is enmeshed in, is rife with contradiction. Just as her artworks condemn inflated market values and other machinations of capitalism, they possess specific market values. In a record-setting auction at Christie’s in 2011, a 1985 photographic work by Kruger raked in $902,500.
“The visual arts are so marginalized in this country,” she says. “It’s a fickle, brutal market – like all markets. The only people that feel that there’s a moment outside the market or a place where there’s ‘clean money’ are, amusingly, people with huge inheritances.”
Charged with polemic, her artworks express profound skepticism of powerful figures and clear-cut binaries. “The world is so not binary,” she says, “except in the digital universe.”
Kruger is notoriously averse to media attention. “No cultural work,” she says, “is as brilliant and extraordinary and major or as damaged and minor and flawed as it’s written about.”
For this profile, as is the case with most media appearances, she refuses to be photographed. Her voice rises and falls with degrees of exasperation as we discuss impeachment proceedings, the rising cost of living in Los Angeles, and what she refers to as “global white grievance”.
When I ask her about the origin of a billboard for Frieze that says “who hustles vapor”, she shoots back further questions. “I’m not giving an answer, I can’t get that specific. Who works the con, who buys the con? Who wins, who loses? You don’t need an MFA to read these.”
Unsurprisingly, she is watching America’s current political turmoil closely.
“Failure to communicate in clear, economic terms what the real danger of the moment is is a tragedy,” Kruger says. “The right has no trouble speaking their rage. They have no trouble questioning what is truth and what is not. Trump really works it – he has the ability to say, to say, to repeat, to repeat.”
In addition to reading mainstream news sources, Kruger looks to conservative threads on Reddit and Fox news – or what she calls an “alternative universe of delivery and ideology” – to synthesize the current moment in her work.
“I love MSNBC,” she says, “but it’s a bubble. In the last election, it was the failure of the imagination on the middle and the left that brought us to the raw realities of right now. As long as the center and the left is divided and willing to vote their conscience, the right will prevail in the most brutal ways. We see this globally.”
Despite the horrors of the country’s politics, she is heartened that more people have the ability to call themselves artists.
“More colors, more genders, more classes of people, than certainly when I was younger,” she says. “For women and people of color, we are seeing change act out on the most brutal and, at moments, satisfying, symbolic levels.”
Kruger is positive that for every action there is an opposite and sometimes brutal reaction.
”There are moments of recognition and significant changes but we’re living at a time where global white grievance is rampant,” she explains, “and there is also a reaction against those symbolic changes. In these brutal and threatening times, I believe it necessary to vote strategically – to push back against the emboldened tide of white grievance and vengeance-driven populism.”
Kruger is careful not to anoint any one political figure or hopeful nominee with redemptive qualities.
“It might not be necessary to love a candidate or support someone who is an absolute mirror of one’s beliefs. When people say that they ‘vote their conscience’, I wish they’d consider that what’s at stake is bigger than their narcissistic conscience or their phantasms of ideological purity. These delusions are a gift to rampant global tyranny. I believe in voting strategically to save us, from what has already been wrought and might be unsaveable now.”