I noticed the window display you see above at the Union Square American Eagle store while walking to work one day last week. It looks a lot like the streetwear brand Supreme, which is to say it looks like the work of the artist Barbara Kruger. A ubiquitous clothing line seducing its customers with the visual language of art, borrowed secondhand from a trendier competitor: this is what Kruger herself might term “a ridiculous clusterfuck,” and it’s exactly the kind of clusterfuck she examines in her work.
One of Kruger’s trademarks is her use of slogans, set in an appealing sans serif typeface and often encased in a solid block black, red, or white. Sometimes, as in the case of “Your gaze hits the side of my face” or “You are the perfect crime,” these slogans are purposefully vague and suggestive, evoking luxury advertising; other times, as in “Pro-life for the unborn/Pro-death for the born,” which framed the face of then-president George W. Bush in a work from 2000, the slogans are more directly political. Kruger’s work is often understood within the context of feminism, and it pays particular attention to the ways in which the messages of consumer culture bend and work on the psyche of the consumer. One of her best-known works is Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), from 1987.
Readers who don’t recognize Kruger’s work as such may associate it with Supreme, whose distinctive “box logo” made it the most sought-after brand for kids who skateboard and perform in artsy rap crews and show up to downtown gallery openings sometimes, but only for the free wine. The box logo—the brand’s name in a bold sans serif, encased in a red rectangle—is plainly derivative of Kruger’s work.
Kruger herself has made rich use of appropriated imagery. She often places her slogans directly onto the magazine ads she seeks to lampoon, laying bare their contradictions and the manipulations they attempt on the viewer. It helps that her visual sense is better than that of most of the ad men she goes after; her work critiques the allure and manufactured sensuality of advertising while managing to be more alluring than advertising itself. By incorporating the surface aesthetics of Kruger’s work without any of the ideas behind it, Supreme gave the wheel of appropriation another turn. An instrument of profit became an invitation to examine that instrument’s motives and techniques, then became an instrument of profit once more.
Supreme’s appropriation of Kruger feels particularly pointed because of the exclusivity the brand peddles. It’s not uncommon to see young men lined up around the block outside its Lafayette Street storefront when it releases a new item. In 2014, police were called in to dampen what they described as a “near riot” crowd when Supreme released a sneaker in collaboration with Nike, and there’s a cottage industry for reselling limited pieces for vulgar amounts of cash on eBay. Perhaps notably, these crowds are made up almost exclusively of men.
In 2004, an entrepreneur named Leah McSweeney began producing shirts that read “Supreme Bitch,” in the style of the Supreme box logo, writing later that they were intended to “make fun of the misogynistic vibe of Supreme and the boys who wear it.” When Supreme founder James Jebbia sued McSweeney for trademark infringement in 2013—the irony of this claim apparently lost on him—McSweeney explicitly invoked Kruger when publicly defending herself. “There’s this one Barbara Kruger piece that says, ‘Your comfort is my silence,’” she wrote in a statement, “and I can’t help but think that I’m being silenced by Supreme with this lawsuit.”
Kruger herself had stayed mum about Supreme until the lawsuit against McSweeney. When she finally did engage, she did so in a way that left her emphatically above the fray, issuing a missive that ranks amongst the most devastating burns of the 21st century. “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers,” she wrote back when then-Complex reporter Foster Kamer asked her about the dustup. “I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting on them to sue me for copyright infringement.”
Which brings us to this week, when I walked past the American Eagle store on the way to the office. My first assumption was that the suburban mall-denim brand was only trying to siphon some of Supreme’s downtown cool, but these particular ads, with their black boxes instead of red, look more like Kruger’s original work than the upscale streetwear version of it. Is American Eagle ripping off Supreme’s Kruger ripoff, or going directly to the source? (Other ads I since found online are more Supreme-ish.) Another turn of the wheel: from ad to artwork to expensive boutique product to less expensive mass-market product—everything is for sale. Their text—“The AEO Denim revolution starts now”—with its conflation of frumpy midpriced jeans and authentic populist uprising, is as biting and funny as anything Kruger has written, except that Kruger is in on her own jokes.
Obviously, the ads are meant to sell clothes. Parallel to this more practical role, they also serve to comment, perhaps unintentionally, on the mutually dependent nature of art and advertising, the pervasive influence of capitalism, the consumption of Kruger’s ostensibly anti-consumption art. At six figures per piece, her works are luxury items in a class far above any designer handbag or dress. In 2011, a 1987 Kruger bearing the slogan “When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook” sold at auction for $902,500, a sum that could also be used to purchase 15,000 or so pairs of AEO Denim. I hope the buyer’s sense of humor was as sharp as the artist’s.
I’ve asked American Eagle whether they intentionally mimicked Kruger’s style—or if the ads are in fact a collaboration—and will update if I hear back.