Barbara Kruger - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, May 15, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Sprüth Magers, Berlin
    Maruani Mercier Gallery, Brussels
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Edward Ressle Gallery, Pay Attention, May 9 - July 5, 2016

  • Catalogue Essay

    Few artists have succeeded in harnessing the effects of mass media and consumerism on postmodern society so efficaciously as Barbara Kruger. Since the 1970s, Kruger’s bold and iconic aesthetic has reflected her intensely political leanings, addressing themes of power, feminism and consumer culture, while continually probing viewers to question established socio-cultural norms. Executed in 2012, Tears is both timeless and distinctly of our time in all that it embodies. Employing Kruger’s signature agitprop style, which combines photographic black-and-white images culled from advertising with overlaid red text, the present work is emblematic of the artist’s ever-provocative and instantly recognizable oeuvre. It is also unequivocally contemporary, referencing the influence of social media on our daily systems of communication often distilled down to simple emoticons. Captivating in its directness and immediacy, Tears is a resounding testament to Kruger’s remarkable ability to both retain the iconicity of her aesthetic and simultaneously propel her practice into the 21st century.

    At first glance, Tears seems to capture an extreme close-up, cropped image of a young woman crying. The monochromatic palette and bordered, square format of the composition are evocative of a film noir still, replete with the visual drama and heightened emotions of the silver screen. Yet when superimposed with a striking red smiley face, Tears jolts the viewer from passive spectatorship to active engagement with the meaning of this puzzling visual dichotomy. The incongruity between the implied sadness of the woman, with tears welling in her eyes, and this contrived symbol of happiness is immediately confounding. Upon closer examination, the figure reveals itself to not be a woman at all, but rather a doll, evidenced by the diagonal crack running across her porcelain, too-perfect face. Kruger opens up yet another contradiction, in her choice of using a mannequin, an inanimate object incapable of expressing emotions. Ultimately, by juxtaposing the doll’s impossible tears with a symbol of joy, Kruger dismantles the gender-specific notion of crying, asserting her own feminist critique of the mass-media-imposed structures that dictate contemporary society.

    When asked about the significance of the smiley face in her practice, Kruger responded: “I think that it serves as comic relief, but it can also be used ironically. In the middle of more serious questions, having a smiley face works both as an absolute ‘smiley face’ and an irony, too” (Barbara Kruger, quoted in Cedar Pasori, “Interview: Barbara Kruger Talks Her New Installation And Art In the Digital Age”, Complex, August 21, 2012, online). Indeed, Tears presents an astute, ironic vocabulary for viewers to decipher Kruger’s ongoing political, social and feminist provocations, creating a visual fission that is as humorous as it is provoking.

    In 2013, Kruger selected the imagery used in Tears for a monumental installation at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria. Especially conceived for the unique architecture of the museum, Untitled (Tears), 2013 spanned the entire façade of the building in a 400-square meter installation. This imagery, significant for its utilization of a symbol as a stand-in for language in our digital age, builds upon Kruger’s use of text throughout her oeuvre. By replacing her pithy, often ironic, aphorisms or clichés with a single smiley face, Kruger comments on the increasing triviality of language in today’s virtual world, as emoticons continue to push the written word towards obsolescence. Furthermore, the square format of the composition recalls an Instagram post, signifying what is perhaps the apex of today’s media-crazed, consumer-driven society. While Kruger’s works have proven to be timeless in their overarching themes, Tears is indisputably of the 21st century. Demonstrating the artist’s exceptional ability to resonate with contemporary audiences, Tears invites viewers into Kruger's ongoing interrogation of the world in which we live.



digital print on vinyl
114 7/8 x 114 in. (292 x 289.7 cm.)
Executed in 2012.

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $300,000

Contact Specialist
Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
New York
+ 1 212 940 1250

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 May | On View at 450 Park Avenue