Randi Hoffman reviews

Barbara Kruger's exhibition at
New York's Whitney Museum


"How Dare You Not Be Me?" is inscribed on a sign over the entrance to a room of Barbara Kruger's one-woman exhibition at the Whitney Museum. The show is not subtle. The greeting slogan is the initial signal of Kruger's adeptness at capturing the essence of narcissistic consumer culture, a skill she honed when she began her working life in advertising.

Thinking about the people I know with "How Dare You Not Be Me?" attitudes as I walk into the room, I realize that Kruger is thinking more globally. A plaque in the floor reads "My people are better that your people." Coming out of a loudspeaker, a man's voice booms, "Get down on your knees and pray to the Lord!" and then there is organ music and women screaming. Originally conceived as a gallery installation in 1994, the room is wallpapered with black and white images of crowd scenes. The portion of Kruger's work is more about the power of manipulated words than it is about visual imagery.

Leaving the claustrophobic racism room, the sensory overload lessens. The next room is big and airy. In the center is my favorite part of the show, a huge white sculpture of a smiling Marilyn Monroe, cheerleader-like on the shoulders of two Kennedys in suits. It's called "Family," and was constructed in 1997 of painted fiberglass. Marilyn's wearing her ubiquitous short, pleated skirt, windblown as usual, but walking around the sculpture and looking closer reveals that she's wearing no underwear, and her anatomically correct private parts are clearly visible. The exhibit's not crowded, but many people are circling the exhibit smiling. The exploitation of sexy women by powerful, generic men is timely in the age of Bill Clinton.

A similar sculpture looks like a couple in an embrace. Again, up close it proves to be something else. The figure that looks like a woman from a distance proves to be a man upon closer inspection. The rest of the room is more signature Barbara Kruger, black-and-white silkscreened photographs with slogans written in white Futura Bold Italic type on red rectangles. The slogans address women's perceived shortcomings, "Not Angry Enough," "Not Ugly Enough," "Not Sexy Enough," "Not Useless Enough." The women in the photographs range from glamorous models to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Next comes the product room. A natural offshoot of her advertising background, this imagery lends itself to mugs, T-shirts and posters. Fake magazine covers are protected in glass cases. A favorite is a photograph of the late Cardinal O'Connor with the headline "Pope Fetus I." Also, there is Kruger's most famous slogan and image, "Your Body is a Battleground," superimposed over the bisected face of a woman (half is a photographic negative image and half is a positive). Originally conceived as a poster design for the 1989 March on Washington in support of women's rights, particularly the right to choose, the image has been widely translated into popular culture on T-shirts, book covers, posters and billboards. More of Kruger's popular images come up in this section, including , "I shop, therefore I am," the words being held in a hand like a credit card, from 1987, and "Business as Usual," superimposed over a shark's mouth, also from 1987.

Ten years earlier in Kruger's career, the work is less direct. In a small room with a parallelogram window, there are color photographs of the windows of stifling, nondescript stucco homes and apartments, seemingly in Florida or California, from the telltale palm trees. Along with the photographs, Kruger has included typewritten passages of desperate scenarios she has imagined occurring inside. One is about a woman who has just discovered she has breast cancer, while another concerns a man who suspects his wife is cheating on him. This work originally was published as a book.

A series of color photographs from 1978 are called "Hospital" and refer to violence against women. The photographs capture the impersonality of a hospital. They depict a jar of tongue depressors, a curtain, and the brown leather corner of an examining table. They reflect the mundane reality experienced by someone being examined after a crime. The ordinary objects reek of anxiety.

In Kruger's best work the color has disappeared from the photographs, and the text has become streamlined. This show's symbol image falls into this category. "It's a small world, but not if you have to clean it," uses a photograph of a 1950's housewife holding up a magnifying glass to her eye. Huge billboards of the image hung for the run of the show in New York City across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and as a banner along the West Side Highway. The exhibit first opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Despite the fact that some of this work hits you over the head with its message, I felt at home in this exhibit. Having helped to organize the 1989 March, it brought me back to the high of being swept up in a cause. Often feeling like an endangered species as a feminist in my day to day life, I could breathe easily here.



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