Barbara Kruger has changed the way the world looks — its visual language, including art, advertising and graphic design. She has been less successful in changing the way the world works, especially regarding gender injustices — the oppression of women in its infinite variety, the dominance of men (ditto) — and such plagues as war, consumerism and poverty.
But that is surely not for lack of trying. Since the late 1980s Kruger has parlayed her skills as an artist, feminist, writer and graphic designer into some of the most memorable, and resonant, public artworks of her era. Right now, the intensity of her efforts can be seen in two immersive displays in Manhattan: a large installation piece titled “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” that wraps the Museum of Modern Art’s vast Marron Family Atrium — floor and walls — in language, and a battalion of individual pieces filling the spacious 19th Street galleries of David Zwirner, who started representing the artist in 2019, in collaboration with Sprüth Magers.
Kruger is known for glamorous, red-framed montages that begin with slightly archaic black-and-white photographs that emit a well-behaved 1950s air. (They come from a large image bank from — an archive that Kruger has assembled from magazines, newspapers and illustrated books over the decades.) To these she adds her own terse, almost koan-like phrases, blunt observations and imperatives that are contemporary in their economy and style — typically 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 glued to urban walls during her early years, to mural-size works and, more recently, to digital screens. They tell dire truths about society, history and our own mind-sets that Kruger refuses, rightly, to call “political art.” Her words tap into our interior lives and challenge our often naïve assumptions about both our own and the world’s machinations. As she described it, with her usual lack of varnish, 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 from George Orwell, Tina Turner or — in the case of the upfront confession of “Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am)” — Descartes. The words appear on ascreenprint, created by Kruger in 1987, in a square of red offered by a large (ungendered) hand.
Most famous of all is a statement of obvious fact, put metaphorically: “Untitled (Your body is a battleground).” This work began in 1989 as a poster commissioned by Planned Parenthood to publicize the Women’s March on Washington, but it was rejected. Kruger just removed the parade information from the paste-up, and it became a work of art, as well as a poster promoting reproductive freedom. The five words punctuate a woman’s face split down the middle into positive and negative images — that is, opposing sides. Its widespread use has been facilitated by Kruger’s disinterest in copyrighting her work.
Kruger came to art from outside the art world and art schools. Born in 1945 in Newark, she tried Syracuse University and then attended the Parsons School of Design, where she studied with Diane Arbus, the photographer of people on the margins, and Marvin Israel, an influential art director. Her first job out of school was a great one: working in graphic design at Condé Nast for about a decade. During this time she gradually realized she wanted to be an artist. After a stab at making paintings, which she exhibited, she weaponized her graphic design skills.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Kruger became one of several artists — mostly women — who rearranged and expanded upon Conceptual Art’s relatively modest pairings of images and texts, which she once called “a closed system.” These artists drew on popular culture and aimed for a larger audience. Sometimes texts disappeared into images, as with Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills,” featuring female movie stereotypes that supplied their own narratives. In other cases, starting with Kruger, image and text were combined and layered, creating a kind of push-pull of image and language that has 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. Her work can sometimes feel relentless but her voice, while forceful, is too restrained and witty to harangue or propagandize. And Kruger’s ideas have developed, while her use of language has become more fluid. She also makes expert use of the latest delivery systems, translating earlier works through digitalization, animation and sound.
And yet, as the installation at MoMA, organized by Peter Eleey and Lanka Tattersall, demonstrates, Kruger continuing to work with words alone, on a very large scale and in dizzying amounts. “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” is an all-print, animation-free affair — also stripped of images, as are most of her big walk-in installations.
The piece towers. It engulfs the atrium’s three very high walls and its floor with blocks and strands of black on white or white on black text in different sizes, with touches of green for crossing-out pronouns. The newest piece at either location, it feels emotional, volatile and even ominous — like these times. The shifting blocks of type can spin, Cubistically and vertiginously, if you move too fast.
Slow down and the clashing subjects confront you. They posit the self as unstable and vulnerable, touch on love and war, and flirt with the end of the world. Things can start out almost abstractly — like a word game — and go strange. One section begins almost with a chant — “War time, war crime, war game” — and ultimately evolves into “War for a world without women,” which is chilling. Another text begins with scary oppositions of emotions: “This is about loving and longing. About shaming and hating.” Toward the end it gets site-specific: “About who is remembered and who is forgotten. Here. In this place.” The MoMA installation’s most sobering moment is underfoot, in the words of George Orwell: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.” This sentence is most legible if you exit the Atrium, go one or two levels above, and look down. It may feel safer there.
Kruger’s MoMA commission was originally intended to be accompanied by a survey that was organized by three museums: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and MoMA. The New York stop of the survey was to at MoMA P.S. 1. But in the fall of 2020, P.S. 1 bowed out, citing a scheduling conflict caused by Covid-19. The survey to the other two 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 with 60 in Chicago and 35 in Los Angeles. The Zwirner accommodations resemble MoMA 53rd Street more than a little, and have the advantage of being on ground level and free.
At Zwirner, some static texts have been reprinted larger, like the searing untitled piece from 1994, in white on red, that begins “Our people are better than your people,” and devolves from there (“More intelligent, more powerful, more beautiful, and cleaner…”).
Several pieces transform earlier efforts via LEDs into virtually new works, adding soundtracks, cascading jigsaw puzzles and entertainment value. But the technology also allows Kruger to expand her language and think out loud, which is more genuinely enlivening. The phrase “Your body is a battleground” is replaced by the absurd “My coffee is a motorboat” and the violent “Your skin is sliced.” One of the substitutions for “I shop therefore I am,” might be this extreme political rallying cry: “I am therefore I hate.”
Arguably the best piece at Zwirner is “Untitled (That’s the way we do it),” a vinyl wallpaper installation that traces the seepage — nay, the flood — of Krugerstyle into the larger world, into advertising, clothing brands (Hello, Supreme), political posters, sleazy online posts and T-shirts. It offers an almost overwhelming view of culture on the move, whether taken as art or archive.
Lately Kruger’s prominence has been heightened with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, casting a spotlight on her famous poster in support of women’s reproductive rights. She wouldn’t mind less prominence. As she told Carolina Miranda in The Los Angeles Times, as the decision loomed, “It would be kind of good if my work became archaic.”
Barbara Kruger: Thinking of 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 Aug. 12, David Zwirner Gallery, 519, 525 & 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, (212) 727-2070; davidzwirner.com.