During the ribbon-cutting on Wednesday morning in New York for Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Skate)—a new installation inside of the Coleman/LES Skate Park under the Manhattan Bridge—the veteran skateboarder Steve Rodriguez, who redesigned the park in 2012, said that a skater told him that the piece “really made him think.” Rodriguez continued, through a P.A. that at times had to compete with the din of the overhead subway, “And it’s kind of amazing, I’ve never had that experience leaving a skate park.”
Indeed, the installation, which features Kruger’s signature bold text on ramps, rails, and walls around the park, with slogans like “WANT IT. NEED IT. BUY IT.” and “THE GLOBE SHRINKS FOR THOSE WHO OWN IT,” is embedded with multiple layers of meaning. Kruger’s work uses the visual language of popular culture as a vessel for insight and criticism, and it has proved to be quite influential over the years. Her eye-popping graphics were no doubt the inspiration for the logo of the popular skate company Supreme, an issue that reached a head in 2013 when Supreme filed a lawsuit against another brand for copyright infringement. When the publication Complex reached out to Kruger for her take on this irony, she responded with a screenshot of a text document that stated:
“What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”
(It should be mentioned that last month, the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, which may be best known for its work in the defense industry, purchased a minority stake in Supreme. The skate company as a whole is now valued at around $1 billion.)
With that said, Untitled (Skate), which Kruger created for Performa 17, the performance biennial running through November 19 at venues around New York, could be read as both a sly commentary and a bit of a full-circle moment. “She talks about it, she’s very aware of it, and she seems to say that she really doesn’t care, but in some ways she was appropriating her own work,” Performa’s founding director, RoseLee Goldberg, told me. Additional components of the artist’s Performa collaboration include a text-covered bus parked outside of the park, custom skateboards, and a limited-edition MetroCard that comes hot on the heels of a Supreme–created card earlier in the year.
The park’s many surfaces provide ample, skate-able room for Kruger’s text, an aesthetic that should be familiar to most skaters, whether they are aware of it or not. “If this was done, say, 25 years ago in a skatepark, it would be the weirdest thing, and it kind of almost wouldn’t make sense, I would say it would still be welcome, but now it’s relative and relevant to everything,” Rodriguez said. “I can say that this truly belongs here, because, think about how many—whether its streetwear brands, no matter what it is—have taken from her aesthetic and made whole visual identities off of her, so it’s kind of perfect to me.”
Rodriguez has been called the “Mayor of New York City Skateboarding,” and in 1996 he founded the 5Boro skateboard company. Performa approached him about a collaboration, but only later in the process did he learn that Kruger was the artist they were working with. “When I found out it was Barbara, we kind of came to the decision that this would be the best place, just because of how grand [the skatepark] is,” he said. “If you think about it, this is like a huge gallery almost, a lot of the other skateparks have low ceilings, or just don’t have that background where her artwork would work as well.”
The 10 a.m. start time for the ribbon-cutting was no deterrent for a multigenerational range of skaters, who were ready to rip up the newly-Kruger-fied park. Eleven-year-old Jiro Platt was enjoying a run while a photographer snapped photos of the young skater in action. “It feels so weird when you walk in and it’s like this,” Platt said. “But it’s really cool.” Not surprisingly, this is Platt’s only experience skating inside of what is essentially an art installation. “I’ve skated a bunch of parks that say, like, Nike,” he said. “But I’ve never seen any that’s art, by a big artist.”
New Yorker and lifelong skateboarder James-Aha King has quite a few years on Platt, but echoed the same sentiment nonetheless. “Whenever I come to parks it seems like there is quite a lot of advertising, though I know that this is a bit of a play on that. Usually you’ll see Nike or Adidas—didn’t used to be that way,” King said.
“I grew up skating in the ‘80s and ‘90s—it was just dirt and graffiti,” he continued with a laugh. Ultimately, he felt positive about the project. “Skateboarders are open,” he said. “Even though I guess it seems very mainstream now, the core root is freedom and expression.”
It is that very freedom that has made skateboarding susceptible to a wide range of cultural inputs—everything from underground music and art to television programs sponsored by Mountain Dew. Over the decades, it has meant many different things to many different people. In real time, though, the action in and of itself can be transcendent. “You know, to me, sitting here, really, I could just sit and watch. It’s so dreamy,” Goldberg said. “Just watching these people go back and forth and back and forth, it’s totally meditative and gorgeous. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”