• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Throwing the Book at Barbara Kruger

When was the last time you laughed?


Is there life without pain?


Who wins? Who loses?


These are among the many questions Barbara Kruger poses through type and image. But are they really questions? Or are they declarations? Are they bromides? Or are they truths? Are they art? What is art? Is art truth?


I shop therefore I am


I shop therefore I hoard


I need therefore I shop


I love therefore I need


I sext therefore I am


I die therefore I was


This is truth as poetry. Poetry as art. Kruger as artist who speaks truth.


These times deserve Barbara Kruger, if only to get the little gray cells moving. Kruger's exhibitions are immersive, filling up rooms and covering buildings with bold, condensed and expanded gothic type oratory that transform words and phrases into declarations and challenges. Kruger is a model (and influence) for all who have something to say to the world but have limited ways of connecting. And if you are fortunate enough to be at The Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or Museum of Modern Art New York, the opportunity to engage with her art will make you stop, look, think and feel. For those who cannot attend, the exhibition catalogue/monograph, Thinking of You, I Mean Me, I Mean You is the next best experience.


I spoke with Adam Michaels, who with Marina Kitchen of IN-FO.CO designed the volume, about what this book and Kruger's work means during these world-altering moments.



How did this book/catalog come about?

Lisa Mark, publisher at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, contacted me about the project back in May 2018; at the time it looked like the first iteration of Barbara’s multi-institution exhibition would be happening in the spring of 2020. The schedule shifted a few times, primarily due to the pandemic; it’s now very exciting that the Art Institute of Chicago will be opening the first version of the show soon, in mid-September (with LACMA and MoMA to follow).





What were the inspirations for your design and production?

When first discussing the book with Barbara and Lisa, we referenced Elephant Child by Camille Henrot, a book that I designed in close collaboration with that artist, and also co-published through my imprint Inventory Press. That book was conceptualized as a hybrid between an artist’s book and a monograph, and it has a unique sense of narrative flow and text/image relationships.


Barbara was excited about working in a similarly collaborative spirit and hybrid mode, approaching the project together as an experiment, while also making sure institutional needs for the book were well-covered.


As inspiration for the binding, with its flush-cut boards, we looked at another book I designed a few years back, The City Lost & Found: Capturing New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, 1960–1980, as well as a couple other titles involving edge-tinting.


But beyond all that, Barbara’s work has been such an inspiration to me (and so many others) for decades. It seemed crucial to design a book which related to her work without mimicking it—a tricky balance to strike, given the typographic nature of the work.


For the book cover, an ideal workaround for this was for Barbara to directly design the typographic lockup herself, based on the book’s format that we had developed.






How much of a collaboration was this?

Some aspects had already been determined before my involvement (e.g., that there would be plates surveying numerous eras of Barbara’s work; essays had been commissioned; a reader section was being compiled from her course readings as a professor; etc.).


But from that starting point, all was closely collaborative—for example, pp. 20–41 show renderings that we made at IN-FO.CO based on Barbara’s site snapshots and flat vector graphics. We put forth and then implemented the approach of turning color snapshots into low-contrast grainy B&W images, with crisp, spatialized color vector graphics then standing out on top.


And while I wondered if we would have lengthy discussions about the book’s typography, Barbara quickly agreed with our idea to set the book in Unica77 LL (itself a 1970s hybrid of slightly older modern type styles), and she appreciated how most type styles in the book run at the same size, changing only weights for differentiation (e.g., body text is set in Medium, captions are set in Black, notes are set in Light).


We discussed some of this in advance, and for a few aspects, such as sequencing plate images, sat together at the computer—it was hugely helpful that Barbara lives relatively close to our studio in Los Angeles, and we could meet regularly—leading up to the start of the pandemic really hitting, at which point we all switched to handling various details from our respective homes and coordinating over the phone and email.


I should also say that beyond myself and Barbara, in terms of collaboration, Marina Kitchen at my studio worked closely on the layout, and Lisa Mark and others at LACMA were steadily in the loop (also in communication with the other institutions), along with Mary DelMonico and Karen Farquhar from co-publishers DelMonico/DAP. Also, Graphicom did an incredible job printing and binding the book, following Echelon’s high-quality color work.





What about the book makes it Barbara's, and what makes it yours?

In the end, it’s Barbara’s book, encapsulating decades of her work as it does—though it remains a highlight of my own work to have been able to shape such an important volume.


This feels more hard-hitting in a political way than her earlier books. Is this a consequence of the times or a misperception on my part?

This definitely does relate to the times. We went to press in October 2020—a time of intense uncertainty, with the pandemic in full swing and a deeply worrying imminent election in the U.S. There’s even an editorial note to this effect on p. 16, making explicit the situation of not knowing what the world would look like when the book would be printed, bound and distributed in the following year.


Late in the process, we added a new visual section at the start of the book, bringing in urgent, often low-fi images such as a snapshot from a TV showing protests happening coincidentally in front of Barbara’s work installed on the street.


This was also part of our general design intent—for the book design to reflect the hard-hitting urgency in the work itself (not something that most previous books on Barbara’s work generally attempted).





What is your favorite part of the package?

Really, I’m thrilled by all of it, both in terms of the book’s form and content.


It did seem like a particular production triumph that the green highlight color matches so well across spot color type, tinted book edge, silk-screened spine, etc.—[it] took a lot of testing to get to that point, but was well worth it.


As one who is wed to books, what is it about publishing that is still appealing in a world where so much content is available online?

As a reader, books remain my go-to for in-depth, lasting engagement with subject matter—something to focus on beyond the contemporary stream of images and information online.


It’s similar for working as a designer; I’m most interested in longer term, in-depth, hybrid text/image–driven projects, and I’ve only rarely found projects outside of books that provide a similar level of close, collaborative engagement.





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