Barbara Kruger, 1978 @Mary Boone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographic works, framed in silver/red and unmatted, and hung against light grey walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. 9 of the works are 4 panel constructions consisting of text and photographs, made in 1978. Each is sized 19×69 inches. 4 of the works are 2 panel constructions of text and photographs, also made in 1978. Each of these is sized 16×40 inches. The final work is a single black and white photograph (itself a montage of images and printed text pieces), made in 1978, sized 33×62 inches. There was no edition information provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Few artists find their own original aesthetic without at least a couple of steps of trial, error, and hard earned evolution. Once they do find that groove, and then continue to refine it over subsequent decades of work, we often forget that it wasn’t arrived at so quickly or easily. Looking back at the early work made before an artist’s mature style has been entirely discovered is often a tantalizing process of searching for clues and hints, trying to see what would come later in the tentative first steps years before.

1978 was a transitional year for Barbara Kruger. Kruger started out her career as a graphic designer, working at Condé Nast in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the end of the decade, she had changed direction (at least professionally) and moved out to California, where she was teaching at UC Berkeley. During that time, she started taking her own photographs, and began to integrate them with text passages, and it is these early works that make up this exhibit.

By 1980, Kruger would have a show of her work at MoMA PS1, and just a few years later, she stopped taking her own pictures and began to use found imagery (much of it from mass media publications) to make photographic collages. It is these collages that signal the maturation of her evolving aesthetic, and her biting combination of words, imagery, and bold graphic design has now become instantly recognizable as Kruger’s artistic signature.

But back in 1978, the pieces of this style were still very much coming together. A set of four works in the side gallery of this show finds Kruger making color photographs of empty car interiors (dashboard, vinyl seats, carpeted floors, etc.) and pairing them with paragraph-long descriptive vignettes. Small details and objects (a plastic rose on the dashboard, a half eaten banana, a matchbook, a rubber glove and hospital facemask) trigger Raymond Carver-esqe stories of aging in Florida, laughing friends, and a race between cars that ends in a crash. Each episode is given an acerbic edge via Kruger’s careful choice of words, the texts becoming a kind of gravelly voiceover that give the photographs context and resonance.

The other work in the side room offers additional pieces of the aesthetic puzzle. Kruger moves back to black and white imagery (this time capturing the various fixtures and details found in an anonymous bathroom) and experiments with montaging her images and texts together into one discrete work. The perspective of the text has also changed – now we’re in the second person, being addressed as “you” in a stream of consciousness monologue, and therefore being drawn into the narrative as though we were the protagonist. A few of the short snippets that accompany each image (like captions) have the social and cultural incisiveness we have come to expect from Kruger – “If you can’t be thin, be clean.” or “If you are overweight, you can still buy shoes.” And of course, there is the red frame, which along with Kruger’s Futura on red font style (which she adopted later), that gives the final work some extra punch.

The works in the main gallery space refine this evolving image-text relationship by paring it down to a more essential reaction. Each piece is a set of four panels: a color image taken in a doctor’s office or hospital examination room (a privacy curtain, an examination table with paper covering, a stainless steel tray table, some tongue depressors, a trash can, a medical light fixture), a short set of descriptive phrases, a cropped photograph of a drawing (faces, gestures, incisions/needles, and other interactions between men and women), and a short imperative text. In terms of imagery, we see Kruger moving from more abstract fragments and allusive details (the photographs) to images with more intensity and emotion (the cropped drawings). Her texts have also become much shorter, the long descriptions boiled down to pithy phrases and bold instructions.

These artistic choices come together in works that hit much harder – the image of the curtain paired with a drawing of a distressed woman behind a curtain, the texts reminding us of “The theatricality of modesty. The negation of vanity. The loss of shame.” and then the simple declarative “Go away.” Other works offer more of these hard hitting phrases – “The elimination of the romantic body.” “The accusation of hysteria.” “The insinuating idea of corporate competence.” “The brown confidence of a man’s den.” “The body as machine.” “The professionalism of repair.” – and it is here that we start to see Kruger’s searing verbal style gathering steam.

While this show is in many ways a historical gap filler, rounding out our understanding of how Kruger found her own artistic voice, there are still enough sparks here to keep the mood fresh (rather than backward-looking). In 1978, Kruger’s internal momentum was starting to build, and nearly all the parts of what would become the larger whole of her art were starting to resolve themselves. In these works, Kruger’s pot was just beginning to boil, and even after all these years, that excitement is still visible.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The larger multi-panel works on view in the main gallery are $60000 each, while the smaller two-panel works in the side room are $20000 each. The single large work framed in red is $60000. Kruger’s work is consistently available at in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $15000 to $510000.

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