Why Supreme’s (Mis)Appropriation of Barbara Kruger’s Art Matters More Than Ever
Founded in 1994 by British émigré James Jebbia, Supreme has grown from a skate shop in New York City to the most recognized and renowned streetwear brand in the world. Known for its collaborations with brands such as Nike, Louis Vuitton and NEIGHBORHOOD, and artists like KAWS, Larry Clark and Roy Lichtenstein, Supreme also “collaborates” in unlicensed ways through the appropriation of pop cultural touchstones and images—from the Coca-Cola logo to the L.A. Kings font to an image of Kate Moss. In fact, Supreme wouldn’t exist without appropriation, as its now instantly recognizable “box logo” is a near-identical duplication of the graphic style utilized by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger for the past forty years.
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Born on January 26, 1945 in Newark, New Jersey, Kruger grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish household. She attended Syracuse University, then the School of Visual Arts and finally the Parsons School of Design where she took courses with graphic designer and art director Marvin Israel and photographer Diane Arbus. Kruger never finished her fine arts degree, but was able to land a job with Condé Nast Publications through her connection with Israel and quickly rose to the position of chief designer at Mademoiselle. While coming of age in the male-dominated art world of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, Kruger drew inspiration from movements including Second Wave Feminism and artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, known for her largescale textile wall pieces, and John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, photomontage artists who respectively created antifascist and feminist work in pre-WWII Germany. Kruger’s work was exhibited at the prestigious Whitney Biennial in 1973 and, in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, she arrived at her now signature style, which often critiques capitalism and patriarchy through word/image juxtapositions that draw inspiration from graphic design, photomontage, Russian Constructivism, conceptual art and poetry, among other forms.
Much of Kruger’s work places white Futura Bold Italic (originally created in 1927 by Paul Renner) text in a red box atop a preexisting image, often from advertising, as a seemingly obvious critique of the image, but which is significantly more complex. For example, Kruger’s now famous “Untitled, 1987 (I shop therefore I am)” piece shows a black and white hand holding an overlaid red box featuring the phrase, “I shop therefore I am” in Kruger’s signature style. Multidisciplinary artist and educator Lindsey Dorr-Niro believes the piece “…distills Kruger’s core subjects (consumption, gender, identity, the body, perception, mind).” According to Dorr-Niro, the painting is not only “a reference to Descartes’ famous and widely misunderstood declaration ‘I think therefore I am,’ [but the] boldness of the red text on the white background reminds us ostensibly of a very simple and generic advertisement—though the choice of colors is upon closer consideration very specific, potentially referencing Coca-Cola, Russian Constructivist posters (which as a movement advocated art as ‘a practice for social purposes’), and perhaps even Communism itself. Finally, and very importantly, the format of the piece is that of a painting which nods to Warhol’s screen-printed paintings and is physically scaled to allude to an ad on the side of a building.”
In contrast, James Jebbia comes from a retail background, starting at Parachute in the mid-’80’s, then founding Union, then opening the first Stüssy store in New York City in 1991 and finally founding Supreme in 1994, when it was uncertain if Shawn Stüssy would remain with his namesake brand: “So I thought, shit, I’d better be doing something else, too, because I don’t want to count on this. I’d always loved what went on in skateboarding. I’d never skated myself, but I loved the graphics—I really liked the rebelliousness of it. And a lot of kids who worked for me skated, but it seemed to me that there were no skate shops around. So I was like, ‘Okay, cool, maybe I’ll do a skate shop,’” Jebbia told Interview Magazine in 2009.
While Jebbia rarely explicates his creative process, it appears that he pulls many of his appropriative techniques from the early days of Stüssy, and, arguably, from Andy Warhol. And, like Warhol, Jebbia often plays coy with the press, giving vague answers on the origins and intentions of his brand. Although Jebbia has stated that he simply thought Supreme was “…a cool name for a store,” it’s interesting to note that one of Kruger’s main influences, Constructivism, borrowed ideas from another Russian style, Suprematism, created by artist Kazimar Malevich with the guiding principle of “the supremacy of pure sensation in creative art,” which he felt was best represented by the square. And what is truer to the philosophy of Suprematism than Supreme’s box logo?
Supreme’s appropriation of Kruger’s style and techniques for its logo is inarguable, which Jebbia all but admitted to during a 2013 lawsuit against Leah McSweeney’s women’s streetwear brand Married to the Mob for its “Supreme Bitch” t-shirt (which Jebbia originally consented to), so the discussion should focus less on if Supreme has appropriated from Kruger (it has) and more on whether the brand’s use of Kruger’s work is, in fact, a misappropriation. Much of Kruger’s art relies on juxtapositions of text with pop cultural images, and Supreme often engages with this same technique. Consider the brand’s 2008 Kermit the Frog t-shirt, which features a Terry Richardson photograph of the puppet wearing a white box logo Supreme t-shirt. The shirt not only shows the beloved Muppets character in a more “adult” light (especially in the video of the photo shoot for the shirt), but also, as a Supreme box logo shirt within a Supreme box logo shirt, offers self-reflexive acknowledgement of its existence as a commodity.
However, Kruger’s work also explicitly and implicitly questions the way we relate to one another within the structures of capitalism, advertising and patriarchy (even if Kruger eschews the label, “feminist”), and this is where Supreme’s use of her style becomes a misappropriation. Dorr-Niro clarifies that: “Kruger’s use of appropriation is motivated by a desire to critique and subvert visual strategies and codes of systemic oppression. Supreme’s use of appropriation—specifically their appropriation of Kruger’s ‘brand’ let’s call it, though perhaps inspired by Kruger’s critical project doesn’t ultimately function critically or subversively because it is literally the label for a commodity. What Supreme has essentially done is taken a form that was the result of a subversive strategy and converted it back into a mere label.”
Not only is Supreme’s use of Kruger’s brand not subversive, it also often reifies patriarchal, if not misogynistic, ideology that contradicts Kruger’s work. Yes, Supreme has collaborated with women, including its recent skate decks featuring artwork by another influential conceptual artist, Cindy Sherman, but the majority of its collaborators are men or menswear brands, some of whom have very bad reputations regarding their treatment and/or portrayal of women. Take for instance photographer Terry Richardson, who was recently banned by Condé Nast from working with any of its publications due to an accumulation of sexual harassment allegations. Of the 2003 calendar he shot for Supreme, which retailed for $50, Richardson was quoted by VICE as saying: “My goal was to put together a calendar that you could jerk off to […] I know I would jerk off to this, so I feel like I’ve succeeded. […] Things got a bit out of hand by the end […] The woman producing the shoot got freaked out and had to leave. I think every person there fucked someone. It was intense.”
Regarding the role gender plays in Kruger and Supreme’s imagery, Jessica Yuen, the costume designer for @Snakeheadmovie and a tailor for celebrities including Serena Williams, Hailey Baldwin, James Harden, John Legend, and beyond, explains: “Kruger’s work often puts gender roles, capitalism, religion, etc. on blast. The bold, in-your-face graphic style is the perfect vehicle for her commentary. Supreme’s work, however, is framed around the male gaze. Specifically: skaters, sneakerheads, otakus. On the rare occasion a woman is featured, she’s a sex object. For example, Kate Moss in her underwear with the Supreme logo plastered over her crotch, as if to signify censorship and ownership simultaneously. Or the Toshio Maeda collab which featured the artist’s depictions of anime girls in various states of undress and shame. Also, Supreme has never released a single female-targeted item to my knowledge despite a significant female customer base. It definitely gives off a boys-only vibe but in a way that appeals to guys-girls.”
One of Yuen’s most incisive observations is that Supreme’s exploitation of women in its imagery does not stop the brand from appealing to women and genderqueer consumers. Vogue recently published an extensive article on the rise of Supreme, which highlights the brand’s appeal to women and includes a photo gallery of “Celebrities who love Supreme,” including Rihanna, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham and even North West. At a recent work event, I got into conversation with a coworker who had a Supreme sticker on her iPhone and happens to be a big fan of the brand (she had never heard of Kruger) due to the “quality” of its products (one of Jebbia’s main talking points) and despite her disapproval of its portrayal of women. Dorr-Niro expands on this effect through her own experiences: “Supreme’s branding and clothing itself has always read as kind of tom-boy-androgynous or gender-neutral which, as a fashion-conscious queer lesbian is commendable (especially given that Supreme was founded in 1994) in a world where it is difficult to find deliberately androgynous clothing.”
With the growing list of powerful men who have allegedly committed sexual harassment or assault and the long history of men taking credit for women’s ideas or inventions, Supreme’s misappropriation of Kruger’s art is more relevant than ever, especially considering Kruger’s recent Performa 17 pieces in New York City—including “Untitled (The Drop),” a pop-up skate shop in collaboration with Volcom, and “Untitled” (Skate),” which features large-scale versions of some of Kruger’s most famous questions/messages at Coleman Skate Park—that seem to point a finger directly at Supreme. The fact that Kruger’s “Untitled (The Drop),” in particular, was deemed less than successful by outlets such as Vogue, due to its inability to conjure the energy and exclusivity of a Supreme release, only reiterates why Supreme’s appropriation of her artwork is so problematic. While appropriation isn’t always a bad thing (Kruger appropriates as well, after all), it is when the appropriator obscures or profits handsomely off the person or artwork they’re appropriating from.
When, a few years ago, Foster Kamer of Complex asked Kruger to comment on Supreme’s $10 million lawsuit against McSweeney and Married to the Mob, she responded with a blank e-mail, that included an attachment reading: “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.” While Supreme hasn’t sued Kruger (yet), Jebbia’s brand does seem to have taken ownership of Kruger’s style, at least in the hearts and minds of many consumers. And, while Yuen points out that “Kruger has a new audience because of Supreme’s success,” I wonder what that audience actually thinks of Kruger. A week before Performa 17, Kruger released 50,000 red and white MetroCards in collaboration with the MTA featuring a series of questions, including “Who is healed? Who is housed? Who is silent? Who speaks?” and “Whose hopes? Whose fears? Whose values? Whose justice?” Eight months prior, Supreme released its own MetroCards with the MTA featuring its signature logo. Looking at the two cards together, you might wonder who copied whom, which is exactly the problem.