Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Barbara Kruger’s Supreme Performance

from the New Yorker "Culture Desk"

In 1927, back when fonts were still little metal glyphs in heavy wooden cases, the German company Bauer Type Foundry opened an office in New York City and launched a new typeface called Futura. The optimistic, sans-serif font was a hit, but the import tariffs of the Great Depression soon strained the available supply. To meet demand, American foundries launched their own faux Futuras, with names like Twentieth Century and Vogue. During the Second World War, Futura languished abroad as its ripoffs, the typographic equivalent of “freedom fries,” filled American pages. By the time the font was welcomed back, in the fifties, its fakes had secured a legacy in its image. Futura was a shorthand for modernity and hope, a staple in ads for the sleek consumer goods designed for the postwar suburban middle class.

A few years later, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, Barbara Kruger was losing her enthusiasm for art school, so she left and took a job at Condé Nast, designing mail-order ads for the back of Mademoiselle. She returned to making art in the seventies, weaving hangings from ribbon and bits of metallic yarn as an exploration of “women’s work,” but felt it was frivolous. In the fall of 1976, she went to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, and shortly thereafter turned to collage, reviving the skills that she’d honed as an ad designer. This work paired scenes from banal consumer life with text that reframed the implied motives of her subjects. In one black-and-white work, from 1979, a woman reading Marie Claire appears beside the headline “deluded.” In 1981, Kruger’s art appeared in a group show titled “Public Address,” alongside work by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer. There, she débuted her now iconic style: white Futura text in red boxes.

In 1990, Kruger made what would become her most well-known work, which features a model’s hand holding a red box that reads, “I Shop Therefore I Am.” Since then, her red-and-white Futura has filled the lower lobby of the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, and hovered over the breasts of a naked Kim Kardashian on the cover of W (“It’s all about me I mean you I mean me”). What began as a way of subverting the vernacular has become a part of the vernacular itself. Like the Absolut Vodka ads of the eighties, Kruger’s format is easily copied by anyone with a computer and a yearning for subversion. In 1994, the downtown streetwear brand Supreme cribbed Kruger’s red-and-white Futura for its logo—teasing the boundary between homage, parody, and theft. Supreme has earned international appeal by releasing weekly product “drops,” including T-shirts, sweatshirts, boxing gloves, bolt cutters, and, this past February, a limited-edition MetroCard, which draw long lines outside Supreme stores. (Original fans lambaste the non-skating arrivistes as “hypebeasts.”) In 2013, Supreme sued the clothing brand Married to the Mob for infringing on its red-and-white Futura logo. “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers,” Kruger told Complex, when asked for her response to the lawsuit. “I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”

Last week, Kruger, who is seventy-two, installed five new works in red-and-white Futura as part of this year’s Performa biennial. The commission includes a billboard in Chelsea, a roving yellow school bus, a limited-edition MetroCard, and an installation at the skatepark in Coleman Square Playground, which pose questions like “Who owns what?” on red vinyl decals wrapping the ramps. The installation seems to nod at Supreme in a way that is more than oblique or accidental, and yet Kruger was reluctant to confirm that the work was meant as a direct address to the brand. “The whole idea of streetwear being branded and corporatized is only something that’s emerged with this sort of power over the past fifteen to eighteen years,” she told me over the phone last week. “I think it’s sort of interesting, and it’s very complicated but compelling, that my work and ideas and visuality have been drawn into so many sites of communication.” Kruger has a savvy, forthright way of speaking. She brackets loaded words with “quote-unquote” to suggest a degree of eye-rolling distance. When I asked about the Supreme lawsuit, she said, “I thought it was so amusing. Here are these people, so cool—like, you know, totally rad, out of the bubble—and there they are suing each other on the most conventional, proprietary, monetary level.” She paused. “I really make my work about those kind of moments. I tried to reply on that level in three sentences,” she said, referring to her “clusterfuck” comment. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with Supreme quote ‘ripping me,’ unquote. They’ve been doing that forever. I don’t care!”

The centerpiece of the Performa commission is Kruger’s first live performance, a recurring event titled “Untitled (The Drop).” Last Thursday, outside a former American Apparel store in SoHo, a line of guests for the opening stretched around the block. Hired bouncers managed the crowds. A woman in Pucci sneakers asked to skip ahead, but was sent to the back like everyone else. Two teen skateboarders did ollies in the street; it was hard to tell if they were part of the performance.

One woman with bleached-blond hair told a friend, “Now I just feel like one of those teen-agers in line for Supreme. It’s making me feel really embarrassed.” Five minutes later, she got frustrated and left. The line continued its slow creep forward. Patrons left the storefront with brown shopping bags. Visitors would be allowed ten minutes in the space, and purchases were limited to only two items. “Maybe they’ll be selling skateboards,” one man hoped.

Inside the store, the set was arranged to look like a store. Everyone clumped at the door to take photos of the red-and-white Futura items for sale, including an embroidered beanie with the phrase “Want it Buy it Forget it” (forty dollars) and T-shirts that read “Whose hopes? Whose fears? Whose values? Whose justice?” (forty-five dollars). The man bought his skateboard deck (sixty-five dollars). A sign, in Futura, hanging by the register said that the proceeds would benefit Performa. Near the door, a woman took a selfie. Outside, the line had doubled in length. It was hard to tell exactly who was ripping whom.
Jamie Lauren Keiles is a freelance writer.

Saturday at 1pm at 427 Broadway, New York City

As Performa 17 examines the sociopolitical context informing contemporary art today, with work examining immediate and critical concerns confronting our urban centers, the shifting political and cultural currents of our world today, and the role of the arts and of artists in supporting afflicted communities, Heavy Discussion v.3 examines skateboarding through a female perspective, reflecting on skateboarding as an art and women in skateboarding as the afflicted community. Due to major political and cultural shifts within that community, including the recent induction of skateboarding in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, increased normalization of skateboarding in popular culture increasing female participation, and expanding corporate interest, now is a perfect time to foster dialogue.

Panelists / Alexis Sablone / Kea Duarte / Sara Kay / Jaime Reyes / Elissa Steamer

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