“Once you’re inside, you have 10 minutes. The limit of items you can buy is two. You don’t have to buy anything,” a man repeated mechanically to a growing queue on a Soho corner Thursday afternoon. The line outside the storefront stretched down the block, even if many of those waiting didn't know what they were waiting for, having purchased a $5 ticket via Performa, the performance art biennial that runs through November 19 in New York, for what they were told would simply be a “performance” by the artist Barbara Kruger.
Still, the atmosphere was tense. As it became clear that only 10 people were allowed inside the mystery at a time, the gray-haired man in front of me plopped down on a ledge, pulled a banana out of his messenger bag, ate it, then shot me an appraising look, as if to gauge, Can I trust her to hold my place in line while I throw this peel away? I told him that we were all waiting to buy hoodies, t-shirts, patches, beanies, and skateboard decks designed by Kruger in collaboration with the skate brand Volcom. “We paid $5 so that we can buy things?” he said incredulously, clearly amused.
“The drop itself is the performance,” the artist had told me earlier in the week, on Halloween. She smiled. "I walk around New York and L.A., and you see people lining up at a number of stores—not just one. The idea of sitting in chairs and waiting for a group or a brand or a text is the kind of alignment and social relation I’ve made my work about for years, so this was a chance to actually quote that.”
That “one” store in particular would of course be Supreme, which had its own long line just a few blocks up the street on Thursday. Since launching as a skate and streetwear company in 1994, Supreme has become a billion-dollar empire, with a cult following devoted enough that some of its devotees are willing to fork over $1,000 for merchandise like a literal brick.
Of course, gimmicky, limited-edition drops are not solely responsible for Supreme's success; there's also the instantly recognizable logo that's stamped on pretty much every item they release, which was in fact directly appropriated from Kruger's artwork. That much came to light four years ago, around the same time the artist famously called out Supreme for being “a ridiculous clusterf--- of totally uncool jerks” for their “sadly foolish farce”—a lawsuit against Leah McSweeney of Married to the MOB for copyright infringement over her "Supreme B----" products. (The lawsuit led to Supreme's founder, James Jebbia, admitting that the brand's own logo was in fact "based directly" on Kruger's work).
Although Kruger's Performa commission also includes a skate park takeover in Chinatown and a set of limited edition MetroCards—seemingly another dig at Supreme, who pulled the move earlier this year, leading to mass hysteria at certain subway stops—she insisted that she has “no problems” with the brand, and that her works were entirely unrelated to Supreme, as unlikely as that might appear at first glance.
“Believe me, I wasn’t thinking about Supreme,” Kruger said of her Performa commission. “Really, I was not thinking about it at all. I’ve just been doing my thing for a long time, and they popped up and did theirs, and I don’t own that typeface, you know? I don’t own a logo. But what they do has little to do with the ideas that have been fueling my artwork for my whole career—questions of justice and power and control. The last thing I would ever think of is a streetwear brand.”
Indeed, Kruger, now 72, who was born in Newark and now lives primarily in Los Angeles where she teaches at UCLA, has remained remarkably consistent ever since she switched from working in magazines—steeping in the realm of advertising and mass media messaging—to art, particularly the collaged black-and-white images combined with red-and-white italic Futura and Helvetica slogans that have become a Kruger signature. “I wish that the issues I’m dealing with weren’t pertinent,” she added with a sigh. “But unfortunately, these issues of power and control and disaster are ongoing.”
Kruger is hardly the only politically conscious woman artist in her 70s to experience a recent resurgence of attention in her work during the Trump administration. But she also has a modern grasp on "what people now call 'intersectionality'," going as far back as the '70s. “I don’t think that you can separate issues of gender from issues of class or color. No way. They are all tied in to levels of control, power, and abuse,” she said. “I know there’s ageism in this culture also, and to think that just because I’m not 24 means that I don’t have a grip on the s--- that goes down is a misunderstanding of who I am.”
Many of Kruger's Performa contributions use the exact same texts she's used in her past work, or at least variations of them, because they are concerns that have not eased over time; the billboard that’s now up in Chelsea, for example, reads “Know nothing/Believe anything/Forget everything,” a series of words she first used in 1987, and which also appears on the school bus she’s taken over, which is wrapped in words like “GANG WAR • CIVIL WAR • HOLY WAR • CLASS WAR • BIDDING WAR” and “KEEP YOUR DISTANCE.”
The bus, which will be making its way around the city, was parked outside of Kruger’s “drop” on Thursday, where buyers were purchasing skateboard decks emblazoned with the phrase “DON'T BE A JERK,” with “JERK” dominating the board in huge capital letters. “I don’t say that because I’m not a jerk—I mean, we’re all jerks at some point,” Kruger said with a laugh. (She doesn't skate, but her preferred method of travel is by subway; Kruger's 50,000 limited edition MetroCards can be purchased at four stations, including one in Harlem and one in Queens.)
There are also, of course, the phrases that she emblazoned across Coleman Skate Park underneath the Manhattan Bridge with the help of the skate park designer Steve Rodriguez—vinyl wrappings include the words “BULLY,” “JERK,” “DON’T TOUCH ME,” and “PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH.” When I visited after speaking with Kruger, the after-school crowd had arrived, including two 15-year-olds on the Halloween circuit. They’d never heard of Kruger, and said the work looked “not at all” familiar. I asked if it reminded them of Supreme. “Yeah, but I didn’t want to say that,” a boy named Landon said, a bit embarrassed.
Still, he added, he thought the messages were “inspirational”—including the one that read “SHOW OFF.” “I mean, I think most skateboarding is showing off,” his friend Rocky said. “So I feel like it makes sense.”
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