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Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook)

Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook)
three gelatin silver prints in artist's frames
overall: 137¾ x 67 in. (349.8 x 170.1 cm.)
Executed in 1985.
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Veronica and Arthur Pastel, Pasadena
Jeanne Meyers Arts, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1994
B. Rose, "Art in Discoland," Vogue, September 1985, p. 672 (illustrated).
P. Richard, "The Art of the Word," Washington Post, 15 May 1986, p. C7.
M. Staniszewski, "Shop Talk," Manhattan, Inc., May 1987, p. 174 (illustrated).
S. Sontag, El Paseante, May 1987, p. 94 (illustrated).
B. B. Stretch, "Contemporary Photography," Art + Auction, May 1987, p. 142 (illustrated).
I. Graw, "First Ladies," Wolkenkratzer, November 1987, pp. 54-55 (illustrated)
R. Martin, STA Design Journal, January 1988, p. 13 (illustrated, cover).
A. Martin, "Barbara Kruger," National Art Gallery Newsletter, no. 1, January/March 1988 (illustrated).
C. Lewis, "Kruger: Smartest," Spin, vol. 5, no. 1, April 1989, p. 83.
J. Giles, "Talking Pictures," Mother Jones, vol. 14, no. 4, May 1989, p. 52.
K. Linker, Love for Sale: The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger, New York, 1990, p. 67 (illustrated in color).
A. Losel, "Bilder, die Sprechen," Sudduetsche Zeitung, 5 October 1990, p. 17 (illustrated in color).
K. Jacobs, "Barbara Kruger," Eye, December 1991, p. 12 (illustrated).
L. Buck and P. Dodd, Relative Values or What's Art Worth, London, 1991, p. 54 (illustrated).
C. Curtis, "Barbara Kruger: Snap, Crackle and Pop: Session at UC Irvine Showcases Artist's Flashes of Wit and Social, Political Commentary," Los Angeles Times, 7 February 1992.
B. J. Wolf, "How the West Was Hung, Or, When I Hear the Word 'Culture' I Take Out My Checkbook," American Quarterly, vol. 44, issue 3, September 1992, pp. 425-426 (illustrated).
eds., "The Cutting Edge of Typographical Design," IDEA, May 1996, p. 60 (illustrated in color).
J. Isaak, Feminism and Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter, Routledge, 1996, p. 42, fig. 1.11 (illustrated).
H. Drohojowska-Philp, "She Has a Way with Words," Los Angeles Times, 17 October 1999, p. 4.
M. Kimmelman, "Familiar Icons With a Bold Face," New York Times, 14 July 2000, p. E25 (illustrated in color).
M. Jefferson, "Critics Judge, and Are Judged, Across the Centuries," New York Times, 21 August 2000, p. E2 (illustrated).
H. Kramer, "Greed is Really Bad, Says Designer Kruger," New York Observer, 21 August 2000, p. 15 (illustrated).
M-P. Nakamura, "Barbara Kruger," Art Actuel, September 2000, p. 69 (illustrated in color).
K. Swensen, "When I Hear the Word Culture, I Take Out My Checkbook," NY Arts, September 2000, p. 77 (illustrated).
C. Bishop, "Interview with Barbara Kruger," Make, December 2000, p. 10 (illustrated).
U. Grosenick, Women Artists in the 20th and 21st Century, Cologne, 2001, p. 287.
K. Raney, Art in Question, London and New York, 2003, p. 114 (illustrated).
Barbara Kruger: Early Works, exh. cat., New York, 2005, p. 47 (illustrated in color).
J. Drozdek, "Looking to the Left: Politics in the Art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer," Kritkos, vol. 3, February 2006.
T. Sale and C. Betti, eds., Drawing: A Contemporary Approach (Sixth Edition), Belmont, 2008, p. 157 (illustrated).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1985 Biennial Exhibition, March-May 1985, p. 66 (illustrated in color).
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Spectrum: In Other Words, May-June 1986 (illustrated).
New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Barbara Kruger, May 1987, p. 31 (illustrated in color).
Wellington, National Art Gallery, Shed 11, Temporary/Contemporary, Barbara Kruger, March-May 1988, no. 18 (illustrated).
Claremont, Pomona College, Montgomery Art Gallery, Crossing the Line: Word and Image in Art, 1960-1990, September-October 1990.
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Art & Pub: Art et Publicité 1890-1990, November 1990-February 1991.
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Geffen Contemporary and New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Barbara Kruger, October 1999-October 2000, pp. 137 and 265 (illustrated in color).
Biel, EXPO.02, Money and Value: The Last Taboo, May-October 2002, p. 83 (illustrated in color).
New York University, Grey Art Gallery; Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol Museum and Austin Museum of Art, The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984, January 2006-January 2007.
Purchase, Neuberger Museum of Art and Durham, Duke University, Nasher Museum of Art. The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991, January-October 2011, pp. 123 and 165 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

This work has been requested for inclusion in The Deconstructed Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991, at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, January-April 2012.

"I have a question for you: what is a public sphere that is an uncommercial public sphere?" Barbara Kruger, 1991

Barbara Kruger's Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook), one of the most explosive and defining provocations in the artist's oeuvre, riffs on a line from a play by the Nazi-era sympathizer Hans Johst, "Whenever I hear the word 'Culture,' I reach for my revolver," an oft-intoned phrase of Nazi ideologists during the period. Disturbing for its association with Hitler's Germany, it underscores the seriousness of Kruger's project. An incendiary juxtaposition of text and image, Kruger's strategy since the 1970s is to stun by confounding, to thwart through aggression. Her strategy is one of displacement: interventions by wit and stealth.

Howdy Doody leers from the frame, an icon of 1940s and 1950s children's television, a quintessentially American puppet--male, spotted with 48 freckles (representing the forty-eight states up to 1959 when Alaska was recognized), dressed in cowboy garb (emblematic of the American West), whose name incorporates the American greeting, "Howdy do!" and who starred on NBC television from 1947 through 1960. A vehicle for the advertisement of consumer products--Colgate toothpaste, Halo shampoo and, "3 Musketeers" candy bars, among them--Kruger sets up the puppet as a symbol of exploitation, a visual sign that substitutes for the commodity itself, a product of a debased culture. Overlaid with text printed in Futura Bold font, Kruger's work is a construct only of apparent content, apparent because, in contrast to the expected exhortation to consume, Kruger has tweaked the wording into a counter-message of satire and reprisal. Kruger here creates a disjunction between image and message, between the subject--Howdy Doody--and the object of its visual field--the goal to which the rhetoric of desire is directed--a prompt to "take out my checkbook." A postmodernist of astounding visual resources, Kruger frames the dynamic of commodity culture as a relay of significations, in line with the critique of society put forward by the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard who proclaims that signs and commodities they advertize are interchangeable: "the stage where the commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as a sign value, and where signs (culture) are produced as commodities" (J. Baudrillard, "Toward a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign," SubStance, Vol. 5, No. 15, "Socio-Criticism (1976)," p. 114).

Profoundly aware of the operations of consumer culture, Kruger's oeuvre disposes such codes of commutability in the reduced palettes and garish images through which commodities often circulate. Born in the final year of the Second World War, Kruger was thrust into the highly charged intersection of commerce and high culture of the post-war years. After a year at the Parsons School of Design in 1965 where she worked with Diane Arbus, Kruger was hired by Conde Nast Publications and Mademoiselle magazine, after which she moved into areas of graphic design and picture editing for publications such as House and Garden and Aperture. From 1977, Kruger's worked with her own architectural photographs, publishing an artist's book, Picture/Readings, 1979, the year she began to incorporate sourced images in her work. Kruger's strategy of appropriating images from popular culture resulted in collages with texts, which quickly took on a tone of agitprop. Addressing issues of language and sign, she has been grouped with such feminist postmodern artists Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine, Martha Rosler, and Cindy Sherman.

Kruger's belief that she "lives and speaks through a body which is constructed by moments which are formed by the velocity of power and money" (B. Kruger, op. cit., 435) is translated into the garish vividness of the Howdy Doody-puppet's open mouth, poised to cannibalize the very text "culture," the rows of white teeth in inverted counterpoise to the raised eyebrows and wide-eyed vacuous stare--a visual image that uses irony and sarcasm to subvert the control asserted by advertisements in their ubiquitous and seductive representations of desire. Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook) stands as an extraordinary compendium of the issues with which Kruger has dealt throughout her career. Taking responsibility "for the meaning which we create" in our society is a political act with which Kruger engages the ads, slogans, and other media meant to undermine the authority of commodity culture. Kruger's work is edgy; it stimulates and unnerves the viewer, nowhere more pointedly than in the present work, which contaminates the familiar and implicates the viewer in ways both profoundly empowering and deeply disturbing, creating a visual frisson that is as compelling as it is provoking.

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