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Barbara Kruger (b. 1945)
Property from a Distinguished American Collection
Barbara Kruger (b. 1945)

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

Details
Barbara Kruger (b. 1945)
Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook)
photograph, in artist's frame
73 x 36 in. (185.4 x 91.4 cm.)
Executed in 1999.
Provenance
Jeanne Meyers Arts, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1999
Sale room notice
Please note this lot has revised provenance:
Jeanne Meyers Arts, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1999

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing

Lot Essay

"I find myself influenced by the presence of time passing, but seldom by particular events. From childhood on, the attention received or denied, the pleasures or absence of comfort or shelter, the place of money, color, class, and power: in other words, the accumulation of the everyday. These moments, these increments, make us who we are and make us make the work we make." — Barbara Kruger

In Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook), Howdy Doody smirks from the frame, an icon of 1940s and 1950s children's television, a quintessentially American icon, and a puppet--male, spotted with freckles and 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—Wonder Bread, Hostess Twinkies and Halo shampoo, 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 boldly formatted text, 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 advertise 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).
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 Condé 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 worked with her own architectural photographs, publishing an artist's book, Picture/Readings, 1979, the year she began to incorporate source images in her work, and there began her instantly recognizable style. Kruger began to superimpose text onto appropriated photographic imagery predominately from the 1940s and 1950s, a period when American clichés permeated the visual media of print, cinema and television. Kruger's predilection for stock imagery and text from the margins of commercial illustration derives from its ability to register quickly and become forgotten, inviting us to find familiarity in the representation while refuting any sort of communicative meaning. 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.
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.
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., p. 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 bright white teeth in inverted counterpoise to the raised eyebrows and wide-eyed empty 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. By composing her works using the language and imagery of mass media and the public sphere, Kruger plays on our expectations on the accuracy of commercials and the media. By de-contextualizing text and imagery, Kruger deconstructs the value judgments and latent societal doctrines distilled in contemporary communications. Although we recognize the combination of text and image as something that we should be able to decipher with ease and yet Kruger has emptied it of all communicative meaning. Of her practice, Kruger says, "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 Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, New York 2001, p. 184).
Barbara Kruger is a foundational figure within an important group of artists including Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman popularly referred to as the Pictures Generation. Together, these artists were responding to an America disillusioned by the Nixon Watergate scandal, the ongoing War in Vietnam and racial and social instability of the 1970s. Waves of Minimalism and Conceptual Art had already largely transformed the cultural landscape. What remained however was an unchallenged mass of media and marketing images, proliferated in step with the rapidly expanding consumer class. Prince and his peers began to deconstruct these seductive images, interrogating them for their role in the construction of identity and their claims to originality and authenticity. It is an approach that seeks to engage Roland Barthes's famous manifesto that "the birth of the reader is at the cost of the death of the author."

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