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One agent provocateur to another: Kruger's 1997 Untitled (Not Cruel Enough).Photo: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Whether people love or hate the work of Barbara Kruger, they remember her words. The signature black-and-white photographs she appropriates – familiar yet vague, many taken from pre-1950 magazines, photo annuals, and instruction manuals – are emblems of a Saturday Evening Post, black-and-white-television time. By contrast, the words she superimposes on those images are fresh, knowing, and precise. They snap the images into the present. To people in power, her words say, I am watching you. To people who question themselves and power, they say, You are not alone. To everyone, they say, I know who you are. Even those who dismiss her work as illustration or agitprop have a nagging sense that they have been exposed.

Kruger received little training as an artist; she developed her visual language in the late sixties and early seventies as a designer at Mademoiselle and then as a picture editor at House and Garden and other publications. Yet she deeply believes in art’s potential for mobilization, believes it can reach people on the street as well as in museums, and that it can put the intolerant and the self-important on their guard. Eager to reach out to the unconverted, she creates art that, with insight and wit, prods people to consider how and why they love and hate. No other American artist has worked in as many cultural spaces – radio, television, newspapers, bus stops, subways, billboards, and department stores. She wants to engage the world.

Given the brashness and feistiness of Kruger’s work, its poignancy is easy to miss. Her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art includes four large portrait-based pieces from 1997. Upon each close-up of an American icon, and set into Kruger’s characteristic red vinyl frames, she imposes harsh judgmental phrases: not stupid enough over the face of Marilyn Monroe; not angry enough over Malcolm X’s; not silent enough and not sexy enough in the frame around Eleanor Roosevelt’s; not man enough and not real enough around the face of Andy Warhol. Nobody is enough. Throughout her career, Kruger has struggled against ideals of perfection, with their endless capacity for breeding insecurity and cruelty. In her catalogue essay, art historian Rosalyn Deutsche notes the “plea that runs through all” of Kruger’s work. She is always urging people to do better.

It’s about time Kruger, who is 55, was given a retrospective. Many other artists of her generation who have been critical of media culture (including Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Robert Longo, and Richard Prince) had museum shows years earlier. But Kruger’s work is less restrained than theirs, and harder to put in an institutional box. It’s no secret that operating in the public sphere is a priority for her: Anyone who puts raucous 45-second spots for her retrospective on “Howard Stern” and writes about fashion and taste on the windows of Saks is intent on reaching a mass audience, which helps explain why her show is taking place now, when many art museums are reaching out to visitors who never before felt welcome there.

In this market-driven, consumer-obsessed era, Kruger’s work is timely for other reasons as well. She uses the eye-catching and seductive languages of marketing and selling; she is at home with the market. “Outside the market, there is nothing – not a piece of lint, a cardigan, a coffee table, a human being,” she has asserted. Kruger’s work is instantly recognizable – it is a brand. But her “product” has an unsettling charge that cannot be entirely defused by any display or presentation. Her work is a reminder that it’s possible to use the strategies of Madison Avenue to appeal to a multitude of audiences, and still be serious and critical.

The Kruger retrospective was organized by Ann Goldstein for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and first shown at moca’s Geffen Contemporary (formerly known as the Temporary Contemporary), where it had more works and roughly four times as much space. The Whitney exhibition is cramped. Together, the three large installations from the nineties that form the first tier, or band, of the show are overbearing. The second band, or huge central gallery, has too much in it, spanning too many – twenty – years.

But pointing out the problems with the show and with individual works is less important than recognizing Kruger’s consistent ability to enter the well-armored realms of intimacy and taboo. When the elevator opens, visitors to the retrospective are confronted with a 1991 installation that is both over-the-top and breathtaking in its commitment and nerve. A strip of hate speech – epithets for women, gays, blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Chinese, Italians, and Jews – is framed on both sides by identical images of a youngster’s face, mouth open, screaming in rage or pain. Set horizontally over the middle register of the epithet column, also in white letters but within a black rather than red background, is the phrase all violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype. Three of these words – all, violence, and stereotype – are bigger than the others. They seem to detach themselves from the words and become instruments of violence, like branding irons or torches; they have an almost terrifying physicality.

Kruger’s need to dive in where others hesitate is clear even in the earliest works on display. For her 1978 “Hospital” series, Kruger took photographs of the antiseptic paraphernalia of hospital rooms and juxtaposed them with melodramatic magazine illustrations and words that flash light on the dramas of private experience (go away; not now; not that). It is also evident in Kruger’s 1997 Pop statues, which suggest, like the 1997 portraits, how much American attitudes toward sexuality and gender shape the formation and memory of our media icons: Family is a nine-foot-tall commemorative white fiberglass sculpture of John and Robert Kennedy, smiling and well groomed, proudly holding on their shoulders the legs of a panty-less, cheerleading Marilyn Monroe, who is happy to be their trophy. The title is as bitterly ironic as any in the exhibition. Kruger lets us know that the American mix of sex, celebrity, and power is as intoxicating – and toxic – as ever.

Mark Stevens is on a six-month leave from the magazine.

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