“A RICH MAN’S JOKES ARE ALWAYS FUNNY” is pasted on the underside of an escalator at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
“BELIEVE ANYTHING FORGET EVERYTHING” covers a back wall.
In the new exhibit, “Belief+Doubt,” by Barbara Kruger, words taller than the average person stretch across floors, ceilings and walls. Words climb up, down and around the escalator. Quotes wrap walls, not stopping for corners. Questions — big and small — cover the expansive lower lobby.
People, twist, turn, circle, stumble and crane in a dizzy choreography, trying to read messages left by the artist:
“WHOSE POWER?” “WHOSE VALUES?” “WHOSE BELIEFS?”
As visitors descend the escalator, they look up at the ceiling and read: “DON’T LOOK DOWN ON ANYONE.”
A boy in a red cap tilts his head and asks: “What does that mean, ‘Don’t look down on anyone?’ ” But an adult grabs the boy’s hand and hurries away.
At the bottom of the escalator, a woman comes face to face with a gigantic equation: “BELIEF+DOUBT=SANITY.”
“It’s thought-provoking,” says Suzanne Gaff, 63, a church secretary visiting from North Carolina. “Perhaps it means there is always doubt in the back of the mind about what you believe in.”
In the exhibit, which runs through Dec. 31, 2014, words confront museum visitors, confounding them, prompting them to pause in a harried world to interpret what the artist has rendered in an unexpected gallery.
Kruger, whom one artist called “the poet laureate of the age of spectacle,” says the exhibit raises questions about desire, money, faith and power.
“Power doesn’t just exist,” Kruger says in an interview from New York. “It is threaded through different mechanisms of control. I’m interested in those complexities. But I want to address that in very forthright language and sometimes with images.”
The most crucial aspect of her work, she says, lies in getting people to question. “It is important for us all to try to live an examined life and understand why things are the way they are.”
The exhibit, which covers more than 6,000 square feet of the lobby, is made of vinyl donated by 3M. “This used to be an area nobody would look at. People would walk through to get somewhere else,” says Melissa Ho, assistant curator of the Hirshhorn, who helped coordinate the project. “Now, people come down and are riveted. They stop in their tracks as they are reading. . . . In order to read, you really have to walk and move through the space. It involves the whole body, not just your eyes.”
Take Ed Blewett, 47, a well driller from Roxbury, N.J., who descends the escalator, then turns and takes four steps back.
“I had to get back to a spot to get it in focus,” he says. “I couldn’t read upside down.”
The lobby presents a challenging space for more traditional glass-enclosed works, Ho says. “It is not an ideal, calm space. It is much more akin to a public street.” Such a setting requires art that is flexible, and Kruger’s “has always been able to operate in galleries and on the street. It adapts fluidly to being pasted on a bus or on a T-shirt or match book cover.”
Kruger was not daunted by the space. Instead, she was intrigued by the idea of creating an exhibit that questions power in a museum with such proximity to power. “It is a museum, but it is also in D.C.,” Kruger says. “That brings its own information, context and baggage.”
Critics praise Kruger’s art for reserving judgment yet questioning the cultural codes that try to seduce the masses into conformity.
“My attempts aim to undermine that singular pontificating male voice-over which ‘correctly’ instructs our pleasures and histories or lack of them,” Kruger wrote in “Barbara Kruger,” published by Rizzoli.
Kruger was born in 1945 and raised in Newark, N.J., where her mother was a legal secretary and her father a chemical technician. She attended Syracuse University for one year before leaving to study at Parsons School of Design in New York, where she was influenced by photographer Diane Arbus and graphic designer Marvin Israel. In 1967, Kruger landed a job at Conde Nast Publications, where she worked her way through the ranks, working at Mademoiselle Magazine as a designer and as a photo editor at House and Garden.
Over the course of her magazine career, Kruger made a mark creating photo montages that mixed “found images” with words in her trademark black, red and white graphics. She examined consumerism, which she continued to question after leaving for the world of contemporary art.
“Money talks. It starts rumors about careers and complicity and speaks of the tragedies and triumphs of our social lives,” Kruger says. “It makes art. It determines . . . what food we eat, whether we are cured or die, and what kind of shoes we wear.”
Images, she says, “make us rich or poor. I’m interested in work which addresses that power and engages both our criticality and our dreams of affirmation.”
Kruger has had major exhibitions a many museums, including at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and Palazzo delle Papesse Papesse Palace Center for Contemporary Art in Siena, Italy, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her texts stretched across a mural on the exterior wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, whereshe was a board member until last month.
Kruger resigned from the museum’s board after raising concerns about its direction under Director Jeffrey Deitch but declined to comment for this article, citing a letter that she and fellow artist-board member Catherine Opie sent to the board. In it, they wrote that they wanted the museum to remain a “globally respected institution” and to continue “its intellectually ambitious and visually compelling exhibition program.”
Kruger’s upcoming projects include an installation at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and creating a campaign that includes bus wraps and billboards in Los Angeles.
On Sept. 12, the Hirshhorn is set to host a Twitter chat with the artist. Kruger will return to the museum on Dec. 13 for an artist talk.
Until then visitors continue to walk across her words, immersing themselves physically in the act of reading and mentally in the act of questioning.
Doubt is good, Kruger says. “Belief is tricky because left to its own devices, it can court a kind of surety, an unquestioning allegiance that fears doubt and destroys difference.”
Aug. 20- Dec. 31, 2014, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. 202-633-1000. www.hirshhorn.si.edu.