Barbara Kruger has changed the way the world looks – its visual language, including art, advertising and graphic design. It has been less successful in changing the way the world works, especially when it comes to gender injustices – the oppression of women in its infinite variety, the domination of men (idem) – and scourges such as war, consumerism and poverty.
But it’s surely not for lack of trying. Since the late 1980s, Kruger has applied her skills as an artist, feminist, writer, and graphic designer to some of the most memorable and resonant public art of her time. Currently, the intensity of his efforts can be seen in two immersive exhibitions in Manhattan: a large installation titled “Thinking of You. I mean Me. I mean you.” which wraps the vast Maroon Family Atrium of the Museum of Modern Art – floor and walls – in language, and a battalion of individual pieces filling the spacious galleries of David Zwirner’s 19th Street, which has started representing the artist in 2019, in collaboration with Sprüth Magers.
Kruger is known for his glamorous red-framed montages that begin with slightly archaic black-and-white photographs that give off a well-bred air of the 1950s. from magazines, newspapers, and picture books over the decades.) To these she adds her own terse, almost koan-like phrases, direct observations, and imperatives that are contemporary in their economy and style—usually a few words in a blocky white sans serif font on one or more bands or blocks of red.
These word-image combinations have ranged in size from small posters surreptitiously pasted on urban walls during its early years, to murals and, more recently, digital screens. They tell terrible truths about society, history, and our own mentalities that Kruger rightly refuses to call “political art.” His words tap into our inner lives and challenge our often naïve assumptions about our own machinations and those of the world. As she described, with her usual lack of polish, in Interview: “My work has always been about power and control and bodies and money and that kind of stuff.”
Many of Kruger’s phrases have filtered into the global consciousness, if they weren’t already famous by George Orwell, Tina Turner or – in the case of the initial “Untitled (I shop therefore I am)” confession – Descartes. The words appear on a serigraph, created by Kruger in 1987, in a square of red offered by a large (genderless) hand.
Most famous of all is a statement of obvious fact, put metaphorically: “Untitled (Your body is a battlefield).” This work began in 1989 as a poster commissioned by Planned Parenthood to publicize the Women’s March on Washington, but was rejected. Kruger just removed the parade information from the collage, and it became a work of art, as well as a poster promoting freedom of reproduction. The five words punctuate a woman’s face split in two into positive and negative images, that is, into opposite sides. Its widespread use was facilitated by Kruger’s disinterest in copyrighting its work.
Kruger came to art outside of the art world and art schools. Born in 1945 in Newark, she tried Syracuse University and then attended Parsons School of Design, where she studied with Diane Arbus, the photographer of the misfits, and Marvin Israel, an influential art director. His first job outside of school was great: working in graphic design at Condé Nast for about a decade. During this time, she gradually realized that she wanted to be an artist. After trying to make paintings, which she exhibited, she weaponized her graphic design skills.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kruger became one of many artists – mostly women – who revamped and expanded upon the relatively modest pairings of image and text in concept art, which it used to call it “a closed system”. These artists drew on popular culture and aimed at a wider audience. Sometimes the texts disappeared into the images, as in Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills”, featuring female film stereotypes that provided their own narratives. In other cases, beginning with Kruger, image and text were combined and layered, creating a sort of push-pull of image and language that influenced art as well as all areas of design.
Kruger has been criticized for being visually repetitive, haranguing, or propagandistic. None of these are accurate. His work can sometimes seem relentless, but his voice, while powerful, is too restrained and witty for haranguing or propaganda. And Kruger’s ideas grew, while his use of language became more fluid. She also makes expert use of the latest delivery systems, translating earlier works through digitization, animation and sound.
And yet, as the installation at MoMA, curated by Peter Eleey and Lanka Tattersall, shows, Kruger continues to work with words alone, on a huge scale and in dizzying quantities. “Think about You. I mean Me. I mean you.” is an all-print, animation-free affair – also stripped of images, as are most of his large, single-story installations.
The room dominates. It engulfs the three towering walls of the atrium and its floor with blocks and strands of black-on-white or white-on-black text of varying sizes, with pops of green for crossed-out pronouns. The newest piece in either place, it’s emotional, volatile and even ominous – like these times. Stagger-type blocks can spin, cubic and dizzying, if you move too fast.
Slow down and the clashing subjects confront you. They pose the self as unstable and vulnerable, evoke love and war and flirt with the end of the world. Things can start out almost abstract – like a pun – and get weird. One section begins almost with a chant – “Wartime, war crime, war game” – and eventually evolves into “War for a world without women”, which sends shivers down your spine. Another text begins with frightening contrasts of emotions: “It’s about loving and desiring. About shame and hate. Towards the end, it becomes site-specific: “About who remembers and who is forgotten. Here. In this place.” The most disappointing moment of the MoMA installation is underfoot, in the words of George Orwell: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever.” This sentence is more readable if you come out of the Atrium, go up a level or two and look down. You can feel safer there.
Kruger’s MoMA commission was originally to be accompanied by an investigation organized by three museums: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the MoMA. The New York investigation stop was at MoMA PS 1. But in the fall of 2020, PS 1 bowed out, citing a scheduling conflict caused by Covid-19. The survey of the two other museums.
And soon after, Zwirner stepped in, taking as many pieces as possible from the survey — which turned out to be 17 recent or updated works, compared to 60 in Chicago and 35 in Los Angeles. Zwirner’s accommodations are more than a little like MoMA 53rd Street and have the advantage of being single-story and free.
At Zwirner, some static texts have been reprinted larger, such as the 1994 untitled searing white-on-red piece that begins “Our people are better than your people” and follows from there (“Smarter, more powerful, more beautiful, and cleaner…”).
Multiple pieces transform past efforts via LEDs into practically new works, adding soundtracks, cascading puzzles, and entertainment value. But technology also allows Kruger to expand his language and think out loud, which is more genuinely invigorating. The sentence “Your body is a battlefield” is replaced by the absurd “My coffee is a motorboat” and the violent “Your skin is cut”. One of the substitutions for “I shop therefore I am” could be this extreme political rallying cry: “I am therefore I hate”.
Arguably Zwirner’s finest piece is “Untitled (That’s How We Do It)”, a vinyl wallpaper installation that traces the infiltration – no, deluge – of Krugerstyle into the wider world, in advertising, clothing brands (Hello, Supreme), political posters, sleazy online posts and T-shirts. It offers an almost overwhelming view of culture in motion, whether viewed as art or as archives.
Lately, Kruger’s importance has been heightened with the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, highlighting his famous poster advocating for women’s reproductive rights. She wouldn’t mind less. As she told Carolina Miranda in the Los Angeles Times as the decision loomed, “It would be pretty good if my job got archaic.”
Barbara Kruger: Thinking about You. I mean Me. I mean you.
Through Jan. 2, 2023, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd St, Manhattan, (212) 708-9400; moma.org.
Through August 12, David Zwirner Gallery, 519, 525 and 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, (212) 727-2070; davidzwirner.com.