fNew creators can claim the Museum of Modern Art and Rage Against the Machine as fans and contributors. Yet this is the unifying force of 77-year-old conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s work: it is direct, powerful and, as her legion of imitators have proven, also looks great on a T-shirt.
Known for iconic text works proclaiming “I shop therefore I am” and “Your body is a battlefield” – the latter was given a new lease of life last spring as an incendiary cover for New York Magazine – the artist always remains humble. “I believe that no work of art is as brilliant, astonishing, wonderful and important, or as failed, ridiculous, terrible and small as it is written,” she told The Guardian. “All hyperbolic claims, judgments, anointings, and condemnations are as symptomatic as the works they deal with.”
Kruger, who first gained widespread recognition for her banners for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington for legal abortion, has been a tireless champion of reproductive freedoms for more than four decades. Her work is known for challenging society’s notions of beauty, identity, social constructs, and how we perceive our power (or lack thereof) within societal structures. With the recent Supreme Court move to override the landmark Roe v Wade decision, which would eliminate the constitutional right to abortion in the United States, Kruger’s art has never been more relevant. Even if that acknowledgment can be bittersweet.
The first thing you hear when entering the David Zwirner Gallery in New York’s Chelsea is the metallic thump of a typewriter firing. The sound, part of an immersive installation and a larger self-titled show by Kruger, is shocking and breaks the silence that usually envelops the stark white space. Yet the art on display is just as urgent as the cacophony that erupts within the massive walls. On view through August 12, the exhibit is a homecoming for the LA-based, East Coast-born pioneer, whose flaming, anti-capitalist text collages and multimedia pieces have helped define the activist aesthetic in America for nearly half a century.
The most comprehensive one-person exhibition in Zwirner’s history, it features both canonical and new works and coincides with Kruger’s large-scale site-specific installation – Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I mean myself. I Mean You – on view from July 16 in Moma’s Marron Family Atrium in New York. This month also marks Lacma’s tribute to Kruger and a genesis seen on Sprüth Magers from her early “stick-up” guerrilla collages.
“My work is rarely incident or event specific, but attempts to comment on the ways cultures construct and contain us,” she says, responding to the timeliness of the screenings. “I’ve always said that I try to make work about how we treat each other. I see this as an ongoing project.” Kruger, who began her career in the design department of Condé Nast in the 1960s, learned early on the power of words and images and the immediacy of a visual elevator pitch as an image-based call to action. In the decades since, her pieces have taken on a life of their own, making cameos in movies and “inspiring” the slick black, white and red Supreme logo in a box, sparking a legendary Hypebeast trademark war, with Kruger suing her impersonators. as “a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool pranksters.”
For her show in Zwirner, classic works have been reconfigured with a digital facelift using video and sound, LED screen care and clever editing. For example, in Pledge, Will, Vow (1988/2020) – also included in the 59th Venice Biennale – fragments of the Pledge of Allegiance are typed out aloud and reconfigured on screen, alluding to the sense that our current history is being edited, rewritten and sometimes even completely discarded by an unknown hand.
“The works at Zwirner are mostly moving image installations created and recreated over the past three years,” explains Kruger. “All of these responded to the specific architecture and built environment they were in,” she continues, noting that she deals with the challenges of spatializing her work. Despite the difficulty of creating these installations, which Kruger still manages by hand, she feels a tremendous privilege. “I feel privileged to have these great opportunities to create works in these locations. I never take this for granted, because what gets seen and what gets prominent is often so cruelly arbitrary,” she says, pointing to the empowerment of certain artists over others, the result of “historical circumstances, the brutality of social relationships, the containment of categories” as well as the capricious vagaries of the often mercurial art market. “I am so grateful for the current visibility of my work and so welcome it as I approach my centenary.”
For her latest works, Kruger, who once wrapped Kim Kardashian’s infamous naked body in her signature Futura font on the cover of W magazine, sharpens how celebrities, technology and social media shape our attention and consumption patterns. “My image/text works try to show and tell the stories of body and mind. How they can be portrayed and how they represent themselves,” she says. “In this age of mass clashes of voyeurism and narcissism and accelerated attention spans, I feel very involved in the self-presentation and direct addressing of social media. How millions of us are pleased, lusted after, adored and shamed by these images.”
At the same time, her works on the streets have taken on a new dramatic presence, with copycat Krugers appearing on signs and billboards at abortion rights protests across the country. It would be easy for a less humble artist to feel the need to claim ownership. “As someone who never thought anyone would know my name or my work, it’s astonishing, satisfying and haunting and can only happen at a time when the virality of images is so accelerated,” she says of her spread. work, “And, horribly, when the virality of plague, war and grievances is so punitively prevalent.”
Ultimately, Kruger’s art excels when it allows the viewer to change their perspective, often on the overlooked or misrepresented. “My work has consistently focused on the fragility of bodies. About how power is laced through cultures. About how the choreographies of hierarchies and capital determine who lives and dies, who is kissed and beaten, who is praised and who is punished,” she explains.
As for the artist’s take on the recent Roe statement, she has the right words for those just getting set up. “Roe’s withdrawal should come as no surprise,” she admonished. “Anyone shocked by what’s happening hasn’t been paying attention,” she says, pointing to the US’s fraught history of suppressing minority rights and promoting white supremacy. “Any surprise about the current state of affairs is the result of a lack of imagination. Of not understanding the power and punishment of what has happened and worse, of what is yet to come.” She believes this failure of the imagination has contributed to what has become, in her words, an “increasingly ephemeral time of reckoning and revenge.”
Instead of being ashamed, she hopes to build a community. “More than ever, it’s critical to compete in race, gender and class at the same time,” she says. “Not to separate, categorize and hierarchize these issues, but to see the interconnectedness of the forces that define what it feels like to live another day. To hurt or heal, cherish or destroy.”