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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK … Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT EUROPEAN FAMILY COLLECTION

Untitled (We Won't Be Our Own Best Enemy)

Untitled (We Won't Be Our Own Best Enemy)
gelatin silver print, in artist’s frame
49 x 55 1/2in. (124.4 x 141cm.)
Executed in 1986-1987, this work is unique
Monika Sprüth Galerie, Cologne.
Private Collection, Italy (acquired from the above in 1987).
Thence by descent to the present owner.
Cologne, Monika Sprüth Galerie, Barbara Kruger, 1987.
Milan, Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Special Affects: The Photographic Experience in Contemporary Art, 1988 (illustrated in colour, p. 83).
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

Brought to you by

Anna Touzin
Anna Touzin Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We Won’t Be Our Own Best Enemy) (1986-1987) is at once visually arresting and replete with subliminal psychological messages. It has been held in the same family collection since 1987. Created during Kruger’s formative 1980s period, its combination of bold text, black-and-white photography and a red artist’s frame are instantly recognisable. Enlarged to absurd, surreal proportions, a perfectly manicured hand invades the picture-plane, haunting the dreams of the sleeping subject. Spliced on top is Kruger’s reinterpretation of the phrase ‘you are your own worst enemy’, using her iconic Futura Bold Oblique font. Playful and provocative, the work interrogates the language of advertisements. Kruger splices and reassembles the media’s mechanisms of seduction in order to disrupt and destabilise them.

After studying at Parsons School of Design in New York under the photographer Diane Arbus and the graphic designer Marvin Israel, Kruger began working in 1966 as a page designer at Condé Nast and a picture editor for Mademoiselle and House & Garden, later supporting herself through a variety of magazine, graphic design and freelance picture-editing jobs. Her first-hand experience in arranging pictures for consumer consumption gave Kruger a crucial insight into the cultural impact of images. After early experiments with weaving and photography, she began using found imagery in her art in 1979. The 1980s saw Kruger transition to her now instantly recognisable practice of collage. Beginning as monochrome pre-digital ‘paste-ups’, these small-scale works were composed of altered found images and texts, from which Kruger produced photo-negatives which were subsequently enlarged. The 1980s proved to be a seminal decade for Kruger. In 1981 she was included in Annina Nosei Gallery’s major group show ‘Public Address’ in Soho, alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer and Keith Haring. The following year, she exhibited at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany and the 40th Venice Biennale (where she returned in 2022 with a new installation for The Milk of Dreams). In 1983 she was given her first museum show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Monika Sprüth Galerie, Cologne, presented her first German solo show in 1987, where Untitled (We Won’t Be Our Own Best Enemy) was exhibited.

Kruger has since become one of the most prescient critical voices of our time. Deftly interweaving feminist political messages with critiques of consumerism and the media, her works function as socio-political commentary and as potent personal statements. She has stated that ‘I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are, what we want to be, and what we become’ (B. Kruger, quoted in N. Spector, Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, New York 2001, p. 184). She aims to disrupt that ability, with a particular focus on the ways in which the mass media shapes society’s view of women. Kruger has engaged her art in direct political action: in 1989 she created Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) for the Women’s March on Washington to protest a new wave of anti-abortion laws. Untitled (We Won’t Be Our Own Best Enemy) arrestingly combines some of the fundamental themes of Kruger’s practice.

Parodying advertising’s use of pronouns to lure the consumer in, Kruger’s ‘we’ foregrounds the collective standpoint of viewer and artist. It is a rallying cry for us to assert our own power. Growing up in the golden age of American advertising in which media permeated all aspects of life, Kruger was acutely aware of its seductive potential. Kruger, alongside some of her contemporaries, probed the socio-political realities that lay behind such imagery. This loose group of artists, which included the likes of Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, John Baldesarri and Richard Prince, became referred to as the ‘Pictures Generation’. Influenced by the writings of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, they enlisted photography, montage, film and more to investigate and challenge productions of meaning through sign within consumer culture.

Kruger has explained that ‘what the mass media have done today is make a thing meaningless through its accessibility. And what I’m interested in is taking that accessibility and making meaning’ (B. Kruger, quoted in W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘An Interview with Barbara Kruger’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 2, 1991, pp. 434-444). Indeed, just as the hand looms over to grasp the dreaming woman, Untitled (We Won’t Be Our Own Best Enemy) visually and psychologically arrests the viewer in a way that exerts the same poignancy today as it did when it was made. It exemplifies Kruger’s ongoing ability to ‘make meaning’ and expose those issues most pressing to contemporary existence.

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