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Retail Imitates Art. Is This A Sincere Form Of Flattery?

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

NEW YORK -- You're heading down Broadway, you hit 100th Street, and you do a double take. There, splashed across 110 feet of vacant retail frontage, is an immense work that seems to be by conceptualist Barbara Kruger, godmother of 1980s text-based art.

And then you read its text:

10,586 SF (ground floor), 8,692 SF (lower level) of Retail space available. 110' of frontage. 30 ' ceilings on ground floor. 11' ceilings in lower level. Matthew Harnett/Amira Yunis 212-372-2397.

It doesn't take long to realize that this signage isn't Kruger's art. It's real-life advertising, put up by leasing agents from the giant New York firm of Newmark Knight Frank, whose logo is tucked into a corner. Its ad just happens to have copied the precise look of a Kruger. It has the same black and red and white design, and the same 1960s-style typeface, called Futura bold oblique, plastered over black-and-white photography.

Knowing it's an ad may turn your double take into a triple. Kruger's art is famous for pushing back against consumption and its selling. In 2005, when she won the Lifetime Achievement award at the Venice Biennale, it was for work that "renews the rich critical tradition that conceives art as a political instrument to transform personal and social awareness." The Web site at the University of California, where Kruger teaches, bills her as an artist who takes photos from mass media, "which she then subverts with such text as 'Buy,' 'I shop therefore I am' and 'Your body is a battleground.' " Not exactly the stuff of major retail ad campaigns. (Or maybe it could work: "Your body is a battleground. Let CVS protect it.")

Call the number on the Broadway sign, and you can speak to Matt Harnett, who says the whole thing is "obviously an ode to Barbara Kruger." Harnett's current concern may be with leasing those 19,278 square feet of retail space, at the bottom of a new high-rise, but he has a master's degree in photography and once taught at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He noticed that Kruger's colors and typography come close to his firm's standard signs, so he couldn't resist taking the parallel further. "It's just me having fun. I don't think that anyone in real estate in a million years would recognize what this is -- or would know who Barbara Kruger is," said Harnett. "I don't think it's doing any better job than any other real estate ad."

Maybe Harnett doesn't give his creation enough credit. Kruger's work has a special power to grab. Go to http://newmarkkf.com, and compare the Kruger-esque page set up for Harnett's building with any of the standard, non-art-inspired pages of his fellow agents' properties; his page is the only one that begs a second look.

Harnett points out that an artistic style cannot be copyrighted. "I wouldn't say we stole her work, or anything like that." Reached on the phone, Kruger turns out to be fine with Harnett's "loan." "This guy has nothing to worry about from me," she says. "My work was always about questioning the power, the ownership of images." She can hardly assert exclusive access to her own imagery and at the same time continue to question the very concept of ownership. Her work has become a test case of sorts for how images circulate through our culture, making a jump from art to ad she'd never have predicted.

What lets her pictures make that leap? It could be that Kruger, who had a job doing magazine layouts before becoming an art star, simply came up with an enduring visual formula. After all, to be effective as art, her pieces absolutely had to have the impact of successful commercial design so that her subversion would have something to push back against. She had to get her target right, if she was going to skewer it.

Or the explanation might be more sociological than that. Harnett's sign may catch our eye because we recognize it as art, and know that we're supposed to pay attention to it, the way we do to its Kruger look-alikes in museums. If Harnett had borrowed from vintage commercial design -- from a design, say, close to the kind Kruger herself was riffing on -- his signage might not have the same force. It stops us in our tracks only because it comes packed with the authority we've first granted to Kruger's art.

Of course, it's not unusual to discover high art that has affected pop culture. That's the way the trickle-down theory of culture says things are supposed to work. We've also come to expect things to go the other way: Since cubism at least, we've watched fine artists steal imagery from popular culture.

What's more interesting is how things have come full circle. The borrowings of fine art from pop culture -- even borrowings like Kruger's that are meant to read as a critique of their source -- have started to come back into the world of commerce.

The comic-book stylings of Roy Lichtenstein can now be found on T-shirts and ads for ladies' nights at clubs -- and the nod is to Lichtenstein's art, not to the comics he was borrowing from in the first place. Likewise, Andy Warhol's grids of pop-culture imagery, from soup cans to celebrity faces, are used everywhere in today's graphic design.

The Kruger case is more noteworthy only because this time there's such an extreme flip in intent between the critical art and the complacent advertising that riffs on its style. Lichtenstein and Warhol were as keen to express genuine affection for their low-culture sources as to treat them with disdain or irony. With Kruger, the critique of the source is more pointed, which makes the reappropriation of her style into pop culture that much stranger.

Kruger might borrow the look of commercial art, but her words were meant to stuff new content into it. When you compare her work with the real estate ads, she says, "if you look at the meaning, it's not the same thing they're doing."

A fine idea. But it may ignore how images actually get used and read in our culture. Sometimes -- maybe even most of the time -- the look of an image is itself the thing we care most about it. Its look is its crucial content. Its style is its meaning; it's what gets distilled out of it, as the message we take home. When a real estate agent borrows Kruger's look and leaves most of her ideas behind, he may be treating art the way most of us do.

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